Prof. Dr. Robert Weidner

Research group leader at Helmut Schmidt University’s Production Technology Lab

Support, not replace

Hamburg Aviation Series "Hamburg's Pilots" - Episode 17

Jenfeld, shortly before Christmas: In a lecture hall at the Helmut Schmidt University, almost one hundred students are sitting, heads down, concentrating heavily on their exams. It would be impossible not to notice the mixture of apparel — aspiring engineers every one, some of the students are in civilian clothes and some are in Federal Armed Forces uniforms. But here they sit, feet tapping, side by side, all of them equally nervous. And at just 32 years of age, Prof. Dr Robert Weidner, who works in the Mechanical Engineering Faculty’s Production Technology Lab, could easily be one of them. But we find him instead standing in a small, austere room. He hunts under a bench for a crate of water, and starts talking as he pours a glass. He talks about the conference that just finished, “Technical Support Systems that People Really Want” and about the many ideas coming out of his group of researchers. It quickly becomes apparent that Robert Weidner is a long way from the dry theory that the students in the next room are still writing about.

In 2014, he establsihed the “smartASSIST” next generation research group at HSU. The group has been funded by Federal Ministry of Education and Research ever since. It is focused on systems built around the “Human Hybrid Robot” principle: Technological systems support specific parts of the human body subject to major strain, or even the entire body, thereby making manual work more ergonomic. The original idea behind this area of research is that whilst robots are already present in the aerospace and automotive industries, they work either completely autonomously or in collaboration with humans (“Cobots”). But in many areas, humans cannot be replaced. “Primarily, automation takes care of simple and/or monotonous tasks, but complex tasks often remain. If a worker spends a long time on a demanding activity, the musculoskeletal system will wear out over both the long and the short term. That is what we want to prevent,” says Weidner, explaining the principle behind the support technology. Weidner and his team are effectively “bringing families together”, creating the closest possible working relationships between robotics and humans to improve workplace ergonomics.

Hamburg's Pilots

  • Episode 017
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Prof- Dr. Robert Weidner
“smartASSIST” next generation research group leader at Helmut Schmidt University’s Production Technology Lab, Lead Professor for Production Technology at the University of Innsbruck, and Managing Partner of exoIQ GmbH
Helmut-Schmidt-University

Weidner deliberately brings together diverse competencies in his team, from such fields as engineering, kinesiology, sociology and law. Why such a broad mixture? “The human being is at the heart of what we do. And this means, automatically, that we have to enquire about what a person does, protect their data, and understand how the body works,” explains Weidner. “It is most effective when each of us respects the other disciplines more than our own,” he says, quoting the patron of his research group, the cybernetics expert Prof. Klaus Henning of RWTH Aachen University.

The pronounced investigative spirit of Weidner’s youthful team can clearly be seen in the laboratory in Jenfeld. Everyone is free to make things, to tinker, to put things together and take them apart again, to try things out and above all to test them on their own bodies. Tobias Meyer, one of Weidner’s young colleagues, encased simple paper fins with freezer bag film. When the air is taken out of these flexible packets, they become rigid and can be used to stabilise regions of the body, e.g. the back. Meyer won the Hamburg Aviation Young Talent Prize for this concept.

Supporting the next generation is enormously important for the professor. He has been involved as a volunteer in a cycling club since his teenage years. During his mechanical engineering studies at the Hamburg University of Technology, he became interested in working in a university environment himself and sharing his knowledge. Weidner began his academic career as a research assistant at HSU on the other side of the Elbe. At the former barracks, he quickly found himself coordinating activities at Boys’ and Girls’ Day. Building on this, he worked together with the “Faszination Technik Klub” to offer a university for youth, the “TeenLab”. The programme is still running, providing scientific support to youth from 14 years of age as they develop their own research questions, construct models and program computers. “No question, exoskeletons are far from uncool when it comes to starting out in engineering studies,” says Weidner with conviction. Since the birth of the lab, several participants have won prizes for their ideas in the “Jugend Forscht” programme. One group even succeeded on an international level. Weidner is committed to winning these dedicated pupils over for the Helmut Schmidt University in the long term, and two girls and one boy from the TeenLab ended up with a scholarship to study at HSU and are now part of the smartASSIST team. Weidner himself won the 2017 Nachwuchswissenschaftler des Jahres (“Young Scientist of the Year”) award from the German Association of University Professors and Lecturers.  He was also listed by the magazine “Capital” as one of its “40 Talents Under 40”. What does he still want to achieve before he turns 40? Off the cuff, he had no answer to that beyond a laughing “keep going”.

These days, he also flies at least once a week. He has taken on the professorship for Production Technology in Innsbruck and his currently establishing the role. This Austrian professorship will also be focused on the workplace of the future. And most recently he was approached by TTS Tooltechnic Systems of southern Germany, wanting to work together with him to turn research ideas into reality. The spin-off company, exoIQ GmbH, has established its headquarters in the Wilhelmsburg borough in Hamburg.

With all these projects, is there still time for leisure? “Somehow, it seems to work out,” says Weidner. He made his hobby into his career, he adds with a grin before rushing off to his next appointment.

 

Basic research is needed to identify just how relief can be effective, for example where it makes sense, from a physiological perspective, to provide humans with support. At first, this was uncharted territory even for graduate mechanical engineer Weidner. The support systems developed were tested very early in the process, for example supportive arm bracers for work at the bench. The young scientists soon ventured to develop complete exoskeletons, improving mobility and easing the strain of lifting, grasping objects and overhead work.

From time to time the professor has to explain to friends that he is not creating the next “Terminator”, but rather providing support to natural human movement patterns, and that the human will always maintain sovereignty over the activities being performed. “This isn’t about suddenly enabling people to carry twice as much and work three times as long,” emphasises Weidner. The systems may soon be put to use. Airbus is already convinced that exoskeletons can be deployed much more in the future. But the systems are not just for mechanical engineers. “Exoskeletons can ease the load on personnel in geriatric care when they need to lift or move older people,” Weidner explains. Here, too, tests are already underway.