It’s not quite RoboCop or Iron Man, but it’s no secret that the military is working on high-tech exoskeletons for troops to augment their strength and endurance — and two Pittsburgh startups are helping.

Vigilant Technologies and Interphase Materials are one of few teams recently selected by the U.S. Army to participate in the first phase of the Exosense Project. The Army Applications Laboratory wants the team to create a system that interprets exoskeleton sensor data onto a handheld device. Giving a squad leader, for instance, real-time information about how individual soldiers are holding up could be essential to completing a mission.

“How do we take the feedback from the exoskeletal suits and supply the squad leaders with performance metrics?” says Vigilant Technologies CEO Andy Chan, explaining the challenge. “You may need to pull certain squads out of the field to avoid casualties. Or find, ‘Do we have enough fuel in the tank to make it the next objective — or should we rest?’”

If successful, this could result in a contract worth up to $2 million to develop a working prototype.

Images courtesy of Vigilant Technologies.

Oakland-based Vigilant has been developing technology for the private sector.

“We work on prevention and helping ‘industrial athletes’ reduce injuries, specifically around musculoskeletal disorders” such as back strain and shoulder pain.

“Industrial athletes” is a term Chan uses to cover all sorts of labor-intensive workers, including people with physically demanding blue-collar jobs and even nurses and healthcare workers.

Vigilant’s small, wearable device clips to the back of a shirt collar. It can help improve ergonomic behaviors with haptic (sensory) feedback from the device that logs unsafe behaviors and provides custom coaching tips.

“It’s like how a lot of soccer players are wearing heart rate monitors, so they know during practice how to optimize for performance and reduce injuries,” explains Chan.

Like many companies, Vigilant pivoted to face the Covid challenge by developing ways to screen for elevated skin temperatures. When combined with a short, five-second symptom survey, it’s a good way to measure whether an employee is cleared to work or should go home.

“We’ve worked with Giant Eagle and the JCC (Jewish Community Center), which has been using it for their day camps, and are looking at using it for all their locations,” says Chan.

“The Vigilant Technologies mass symptom screening tool helps our early childhood and day camp families feel safer during these challenging times and has streamlined the health and safety protocols for the entire JCC,” says Jason Kunzman, chief program officer at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh.

Vigilant Technologies is based in Oakland, and employs five people (with several part-timers), but is hiring and expanding. The company is a spinoff from Carnegie Mellon University that grew through Innovation Works’ AlphaLab accelerator program.

Its partner in the project, Interphase Materials, has worked on a range of projects, from improving the efficiency of buildings and power plants to keeping underwater surfaces clean. This challenge from the Army will leverage its experience in bioengineering, says Noah Snyder, CEO of Interphase Materials, based in Harmar Township.

“Interphase Materials was founded after originally developing technology for improving neural prosthetic devices,” says Snyder. “We are very appreciative of the Army for giving us a chance to help and really happy to work alongside a great company that we ‘grew up’ with in the AlphaLab Gear accelerator program.”