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Technologies like robots, drones and VR are widely used not only in entertainment, but in modern industry as well, allowing to transform and accelerate many processes. Russian mining giant Nornickel, top producer of palladium and high-grade nickel, is in the forefront of such innovations. For several years, its mining and metallurgical enterprises have been using machine vision technologies and drones. Today, there are already more than ten such drones, and engineers continue improving them, in particular, preparing for autonomous work underground. Yet, the company’s innovations extend to another promising technology — exoskeletons.

Getting superpowers

Exoskeletons are special structures fixed on the human body to take on a significant proportion of the entire physical load. It is much easier to work with heavy tools, carry loads, and just stand in such a frame. The advantages are obvious: the increase of productivity and the protection of workers’ health. Also, there is no need to think about the equipment’s "brains," as when designing robots.

Exoskeletons are being developed worldwide: in the United States, Japan, Israel, Germany, China, and South Korea, and used by carmakers Ford, BMW, Volkswagen, Audi, Honda and Hyundai,aircraft manufacturers like Boeing, and electronics manufacturers Samsung, Panasonic, Siemens. In 2021, the global market of exoskeletons was estimated at over $250 million. According to Global Market Insights, it will reach $5 billion by 2030.

In Russia, Nornickel, Exorise, Useful Robots and ExoAtlant are engaged in the development and production of exoskeletons. They are being introduced not only in industry, but also in healthcare to facilitate lengthy surgical operations.

Materials used for exoskeletons range from textile to metals, but the goal is the same — to facilitate the work and protect the person. Exoskeletons are usually put on over clothes and secured with belts.

“When the device is properly fixed, you don’t actually feel it,” Viktor Dikonenko, the chief technologist at the Norilskremont, said. “The exoskeleton helps to relieve the load and increase the safety of operations, and can significantly enhance the physical capabilities of a person.”

Possible applications

According to statistics watchdog Rosstat, about 5 million people in Russia aged 15-72 are now doing heavy physical work in manufacturing, mining, construction and transportation. To varying degrees, hard physical labor exists in many large companies. It is not always advisable to completely robotize these processes, but it is quite possible to increase the capabilities of an employee with the help of an exoskeleton.

According to Dikonenko, textile exoskeletons have already been introduced, and industrial exoskeletons have passed all the necessary tests. “We have finished our work, lawyers are now doing their job. Technical documentation is ready, designs are approved. The order has already been practically formed and the contractor for exoskeletons production has been chosen. There is only one thing left — legal recognition of this equipment at the level of Russian legislation,” he said.

In fact, the exoskeleton’s goal is the empowerment of a person to work more efficiently, Dikonenko said.

“Let's say we need to change a 60-kilogram valve on a supply line, at a height of 1.3 meters, and in a confined space. Today, this work is carried out by three people: two hold the valve, one changes the bolted connections, all of which takes at least three minutes and 28 seconds. With an exoskeleton, such work takes 20 seconds more, but all tasks are performed by one person. This does not mean that the others will not be needed. It's just that they will be able to work somewhere else: maintenance is constantly required for any expensive equipment, so that it does not fail,” he explained.

The development of an industrial exoskeleton has been ongoing for over four years and completed in January 2022. The design was repeatedly checked and tested in production, and then improved, based on feedback and requests from workers. So, by February 2020, the test time has already exceeded 600 hours.

Designed in Russia

Lightweight and wear-resistant aviation aluminum was used for the construction of the exoskeleton, which takes on up to 90% of the weight, relieves the load on the low back when lifting and carrying loads weighing up to 60 kilograms, and on the hands when working with tools up to 15 kilograms. The exoskeleton weighs up to 24 kilograms and is suitable for persons 165 to 195 centimeters tall with a weight of 60 to 100 kilograms.

For an experienced operator, putting on the exoskeleton takes about five minutes, and taking it off takes a minute.

The exoskeleton is fully Russian-designed. “All the design features of the exoskeleton are made entirely of domestic materials — from electrical wiring insulation to the last screw and nut. This is what our engineers were originally aiming for. We are self-sufficient,” Dikonenko stressed.

First of all, Nornickel will use exoskeletons at its own production facilities. So, back in 2020, employees of the company’s Polar Division were the first in Russia to receive certificates in “operation of industrial exoskeletons”.

Quick to learn

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Professional training lasts 42 hours and includes 26 hours of theory and 16 hours of practice. The trainers tell about the structure of the exoskeleton, and how to transport, store, adjust and check it.

“We noticed that the exoskeleton works great for those who have a positive attitude toward it,” Dikonenko said. “You need to learn this, but for this you first need to be ready to interact with it.”

The skeleton was developed by the R&D division Digital Laboratory in partnership with the Kursk-based Southwest State University. Digital Laboratory is also developing drones, mine surveying robots, neural networks, VR and other technologies to be used at Nornickel ’s production facilities. In particular, they are working on the creation of a collaborative robot that can work together with a person.

“About 20 initiatives are being actively implemented at different sites of the company. The first focus of our team was on the ore preparation, and now we are moving to other processing stages,” Alexander Vasiliev, the head of the Competences division, said.

“A person works little, but does a lot. And this equipment will help make these dreams come true in the near future,” Dikonenko said, perfectly summing up Nornickel’s views on the issue.

Nornickel is not only actively developing its innovation business, but is also looking for innovations and inventions that can be applied in the production process globally.

Within these efforts, the company launched an international competition In'Hub for innovators and inventors. In October this year, the In'Hub innovators' forum will be held in Russia’s Novosibirsk, where the most promising inventions and solutions will be presented.

The In'Hub forum is an opportunity for all parties interested in inventions to meet each other. The inventor bears no risks when presenting his product, while the investor and companies see the product in action, evaluate its idea — projects are pre-selected, meeting a certain level of quality and lack of underlying risks, — which means they can evaluate a certain perspective for themselves