A design team the University of Pennsylvania has taken home the top prize on offer from the inventor of the Dyson vacuum for their battery-powered robotic arm which is capable of boosting a human being's lifting power by nearly 40 pounds.

Four mechanical engineering students at Penn built what they call the Titan Arm, an exoskeletal apparatus, to claim the 2013 Dyson award.

The award garnered the design team just over $48,000 and netted the University of Pennsylvania engineering department an additional $10,000 donation.

Sir James Dyson, the billionaire and founder of a bagless vacuum cleaner which, of course, "never loses suction," founded of the annual awards which are distributed by his James Dyson Foundation.

"Titan Arm is obviously an ingenious design, but the team's use of modern, rapid – and relatively inexpensive – manufacturing techniques makes the project even more compelling," Dyson said.

Titan Arm SpecsOver the course of eight months, the Penn team produced the prototype for under $2,000 – and that's somewhere around a 50th of the cost of a typical exoskeleton. To make it happen, they used computer-aided design, 3D printing and computer controlled machining techniques. The arm, connected to a rigid back piece strapped to the user for support, is capable of boosting the strength of the wearer. With a battery life of about eight hours on a single charge, the device is controlled by a joystick which the design team says will be phased out of future versions. They hope the device will ultimately use electrical impulses generated from the user's muscle tissue to trigger it.

Titan is an upper-body exoskeleton that augments human strength and provides rich data feedback for users and doctors. The suit was developed for use in occupational lifting and healthcare. Occupational lifters such as warehouse workers face increased risk of arm and back injuries because they repeatedly lift heavy items every day. To prevent this, Titan augments the user's arm strength by 18 kg to reduce fatigue, and braces the back to prevent poor lifting posture. Healthcare applications include physical therapy and mobility assistance. Titan can be used to help stroke and injury victims rebuild muscle and relearn fine motor control. It also provides detailed quantitative feedback to doctors which can be used to motivate their patients by tracking improvement over time. Finally, Titan can help people who suffer from permanent injuries or disabilities to live fully-empowered lives. Using an exoskeleton, both patients and the elderly will be able to regain their independence.

Inspired by those suffering with back or arm injuries, the team wanted to create a device to help the injured recover – or live with – their damaged bodies.

To begin their work on the idea, the team researched available exoskeletons and academic projects before finally focusing on the upper body. After some technical and market research, the team spoke with physical therapists and patients to gather information. Using CAD software alongside 3D printing and CNC machining, several physical prototypes were produced, and that lead to the final, ergonomic form of the device.

Custom software controls the suit and is capable of transmitting real-time data to therapists and doctors as the arm is in use.

Second prize went to a brain-activated prosthetic hand built by a team in Japan, and third prize was awarded to a team from New Zealand who 3D printed casts for use in setting broken limbs.