Weightless, Technology and Disabilities

When I think about the way technology has changed the world and our lives,  in my own lifetime, I marvel at what has happened. In my lifetime, technology has change how we cook, clean, learn and more. For example, cameras have become more sophisticated and have become even easier to use; typewriters went from manual to electronic models; a phone is no longer “just” a phone; computers have become smaller and smaller and ever more powerful– many tools and appliances we use in daily life are heavily influenced by computer-based technology. The mind boggles to think how much every aspect of life has been altered in some way by technological innovation.

So it is with adaptive technology. Many technologies initially marketed to the disabled community have now gone mainstream or are appreciated by society at large. Three such technologies that come to mind are dictation software e.g., Dragon Dictate, automatic door openers and the lowly “curb-cut.” The former is often used by executives and attorneys, the latter two are appreciated (perhaps unconsciously) by anyone with an arm full of packages or who is attempting to manage a stroller or a rolling suitcase.

I recently happened to see a demonstration on CNN of a “zero gravity” industrial arm that attaches to heavy tools like riveters and grinders, making them effectively weightless for their human operators. The idea came from Steadicam, a stabilization arm that eliminates jolts and shocks from television camera movement. Called “zeroG” the industrial arm uses the same fundamentals that drive Steadicam technology. Both technologies were invented by Garrett Brown. Although Brown developed the zeroG device, the idea originally came from an industrial engineer at Honda, who approached him in 2006 to ask whether Steadicam arms could be used to hold tools. Brown teamed with a start-up company, Equipois, to bring the product to market.

The zeroG devices are roughly the size of human arm and are made of aerospace-grade aluminum and steel. The “arms” come in two sizes, and require no outside power to operate. Instead, they simulate weightlessness by creating a counterbalance: each arm uses a large spring that pulls upward with constant force on a tool. According to Gordon, “the actions cancel each other out, when the arm holding the tool moves, the position of the end of the spring changes to compensate for the movement.”

The zeroG arm uses a gimbal, a structure to hold the tool in place while allowing it to rotate freely, so factory workers can manipulate familiar tools the way they always have. And the arms can be mounted almost anywhere: on walls, tables, floors or mobile carts. In the CNN video, Brown and Gordon talked about how as industries become more familiar with the zeroG device, more and more applications are being suggested and tried.

The zeroG has proven itself in in the world of industry; this unique technology reduces injuries, increases productivity, and decreases costs in the workplace by enabling workers to maneuver heavy objects as if weightless, but with total freedom of motion. According to Brown, he sees great potential for the arm to aid the disabled and I would agree. Initially I can see the technology being of benefit for those with disabilities who have limited range of motion or strength. With time, experience, user input and innovation, I expect this “weightless” technology to be developed for other applications for those with disabilities.

Pictures of the arm in use may be viewed at the Equipois Facebook site, http://www.facebook.com/equipois?sk=photos. More information and two videos are available at the Equipois site, http://www.equipoisinc.com/.


WINAHEAD is made up of representatives from thirty institutions. Our members are professionals employed by two- and four-year colleges and universities who work directly with students with disabilities to ensure equal access to higher education. WIN indicates the geographic area we represent: Western Iowa and Nebraska. AHEAD is our national parent organization, the Association on Higher Education and Disability.
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