Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

Titan Arm: Bionic bicep gives you the strength of Hercules

  • University of Pennsylvania students develop upper-body exoskeleton
  • The invention can lift 40 lbs and be used for physical rehabilitation
  • The Titan Arm won the Cornell Cup for Innovation
  • Inventor JD Albert described the device as "exciting"

(CNN) -- In the past, if you wanted to be able to be able to lift more weight you would have to spend months bulking up at the gym. Now, with a new invention from a group of engineering students at the University of Pennsylvania, you can just strap on an external bicep and you are ready to go.

The bionic device, called the Titan Arm, is the brainchild of four mechanical engineering students who, in their final undergraduate year, built an upper-body exoskeleton that can be used in physical therapy and manual labor. The invention won its inventors $10,000 in the Cornell Cup for Innovation and has recently been shortlisted for the 2013 Dyson award.

The Titan Arm straps directly to a user's right arm to help lift heavy objects that the user wouldn't normally be able to lift. Its inventors believe that it will be useful in aiding physical rehabilitation, both for people who have suffered upper body injuries and for those with pre-existing muscular-skeletal disorders.

The Titan Arm's inventors say the exoskeleton can also be used by people whose jobs require heavy lifting such as warehouse workers, removalists and couriers.

Read: Bionic fashion, hot wearable tech

"With the Titan Arm, we wanted to create something that could both augment a user's natural strength as well as help someone perform physical therapy in their own home," says Elizabeth Beattie, one of the Titan Arm's inventors. "We wanted to create something that was low-cost and easy for a user to put on and strap to themselves."

According to the United States Department of Labour, back disorders are one of the leading causes of disability for people during their working years. The American National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health says that back problems afflict over 600,000 employees each year with a cost of around $50 billion annually to the U.S. economy. The problem is significant in other countries: the World Health Organisation says that worldwide, 37% of lower back pain is due to injuries sustained in the workplace.

Beattie says that addressing this problem while being attentive to user comfort was one of the primary motivating principles in designing the device: "We wanted something that was comfortable for the user, something that mimics the body's natural mobility and range, so we definitely went through a lot of testing in order to get to where the design is right now."

We want to use our engineering tool kits to better the quality of life of those around us
Elizabeth Beattie, co-inventor of the Titan Arm

The Titan Arm attaches to a user's right arm with a power motor at its elbow joint. The bionic limb can lift approximately 40 pounds of weight, augmenting a user's natural strength. The arm is predominantly made of aluminum and steel components, and is powered by a DC battery.

Read: Meet the robot chef who "prints" cookies

As well as helping lift weight, the arm can also be locked into any position with a ratchet brake to hold an object steady without any exertion from the user.

JD Albert, an engineer and co-founder of E-Ink, calls the Titan Arm "exciting," but adds: "I would caveat that with the fact that it's a very tough product to launch for a lot of reasons ... it needs to feel right (and) I think there's also some pretty significant safety concerns ... We are taking a piece of machinery and integrating it with a person and so naturally you need to make sure that there's no way to injure someone."

Still, Albert says that for young engineers, the Titan Arm represents an impressive achievement: "They've managed to combine a pretty wide variety of disciplines both dealing the mechanical side of things -- the design and the electrical -- and the software side of things as well."

Beattie says that the Titan Arm team intends to keep working on the exoskeleton with a view to one day bringing it to market: "The four of us definitely want to use our engineering tool kits to better the quality of life of those around us. I think that's one of the things that technology really has the power to do."

Part of complete coverage on
Liquidity lightbulbs at the Milan Furniture Show 2012
See the full coverage of CNN's Blueprint -- a new series exploring the very latest design and technology trends.
updated 2:01 PM EST, Mon December 9, 2013
A swat team assess risk before raiding a building
A baseball-sized shock absorbent camera that can be thrown into a disaster zone to assess risks posed to rescuers.
updated 2:51 PM EST, Mon November 11, 2013
Astronauts wash and drink from the same continuously recycled source for years. So why do we not do the same on Earth?
updated 5:46 AM EDT, Fri October 25, 2013
The Titan Arm
A new strap-on external bicep called the Titan Arm allows humans to lift very heavy objects by giving them instant super strength.
updated 8:56 AM EDT, Fri October 11, 2013
See the origami kayak take shape in our 40-second time lapse video.
updated 9:35 AM EDT, Fri September 27, 2013
The Seaboard is a musical instrument like a keyboard that allows you to bend the pitch and volume of each note.
The 'Seaboard keyboard' is a tech forward interpretation of the piano, that reimagines what a keyboard can do.
updated 2:56 PM EDT, Thu September 19, 2013
Phonebloks smartphone
What if you could build your own smartphone that would last you for the rest of your life?
updated 4:49 AM EDT, Tue September 17, 2013
3D printed gun
Why did the Victoria and Albert Museum in London acquire two models of the world's first 3D-printed gun?
updated 6:09 AM EDT, Fri September 13, 2013
It looks like a regular bike light, but one day Emily Brooke's Blaze light could save your life.
updated 6:01 AM EDT, Tue September 10, 2013
After months of hype and speculation, the Samsung Galaxy Gear smart watch arrived this week with a bang... followed by a whimper.
updated 12:16 PM EDT, Mon September 2, 2013
ARMAR is the ultimate sous chef. He'll bring you ingredients from the fridge and after you've made lots of mess he'll load the dishwasher and clean the surfaces. He's just one of a growing army of robo-chefs that are shaping the future of our kitchens.
Your cooking partner is a robot, your fridge can talk, and your plate is your own personal dietician. This is the kitchen of the future
updated 9:27 AM EDT, Wed August 21, 2013
Sound on Intution: sensors attach to your hands,feet and heart to produce music that responds to movement
updated 6:27 AM EDT, Thu August 15, 2013
Not only did Unger have to contend with the typical design challenges of aesthetics and manufacturability, she also needed to become an expert in the reproductive habits of flies.
In 2050, when nine billion people are living on Earth, will high-protein insects be a part of our staple diet?
updated 9:01 AM EDT, Tue August 13, 2013
He's invented breathable food, flavor clouds and olfactory telephones. Now David Edwards is bringing edible food-packaging to the table.
updated 6:31 AM EDT, Tue August 13, 2013
ASAP is a solar-powered life-saving machine that's cheaper, greener and more efficient than a traditional Jet Ski
updated 6:57 AM EDT, Mon August 5, 2013
Transparent dresses, vacuum shoes, shark-proof wetsuits and more. We imagine a day in the life of a wearable technology user in the year 2015.
updated 1:23 PM EDT, Mon July 29, 2013
Europe spends $13 billion annually on fueling street lights. With a new system called 'Tvilight', streetlamps can sense the arrival of a person.
updated 5:19 AM EDT, Mon August 5, 2013
The earthquake-proof table can combat a ton of falling debris and provides reliable protection for people taking shelter during an earthquake