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Beyond the Bale : June 2019
53 Pioneering research to help shearers minimise back injuries, through the use of wearable robotics, is being undertaken by the University of Melbourne thanks to funding from AWI. SHEARING R&D GROUND-BREAKING, NOT BACK-BREAKING! Attracting and retaining shearers is one of the biggest challenges facing woolgrowers and the industry. A major factor is that shearing can be a ‘back-breaking’ profession, with injuries to shearers being six times the all-industry average in Australia. Lower back injuries are the biggest issue due to their long rehabilitation time and associated lost productivity. A new project funded by AWI aims to understand exactly how these injuries arise and then research potential wearable robotic solutions for shearers to reduce the risk of injury while still allowing the high degree of maneuverability required for shearing. AWI Program Manager for Farm Automation & Reproduction, Carolina Diaz, says the initial objective of the project is for the researchers to accurately identify the mechanisms of lower back musculoskeletal injuries in shearers. “With this knowledge, researchers aim to develop a practical and cost-effective prototype tool to be worn by shearers to alert them when they are becoming vulnerable to potential injuries. This sensing unit would propose optimal resting cycles and could potentially be connected to a mobile phone application,” she said. “However, by the end of this 12-month project, researchers will also develop a conceptual design for a more active solution for fatigue management and injury prevention, such as an exoskeleton that the shearer can wear, which is very exciting.” The project is led by the University of Melbourne robotics team, including Associate Professors Denny Oetomo and Ying Tan and Professor Chris Manzie. Associate Professor Oetomo, whose expertise is in the physical assistance and clinical applications of robotics, says muscle fatigue is recognised as a precursor to injuries during shearing. “During shearing, when ‘fast’ responding muscles of the back tire, the burden of shearing is left to the ‘slower’ muscles that are less capable to respond to sudden movements and therefore are more prone to injuries. Furthermore, the long period spent by the shearers in stooped postures also contributes to significant changes to their musculoskeletal behavior, which reduces the body’s ability to protect itself from physical injuries. “In this project, the back muscles from a range of shearers will be measured using Electromyography (EMG) signals, which will be studied as the primary indicator of the lower back’s capability to resist injuries. “Secondly, we will measure and study the shearers’ posture. It is widely accepted that when humans get fatigued during a repetitive task they shift their posture, to distribute the load to other muscles, often creating sub-optimal posture for the task which can lead to injuries.” University of Melbourne researchers will collect the measurements from shearers on a specially designed portable measurement platform that will be installed in a real shearing shed where it is possible for the shearers to shear more than 200 sheep per day. Researchers will therefore be able to study the shearers’ biomechanics in authentic conditions. A measurement system will be developed for shearers to wear during the research. This system will monitor the shearers’ The measurement platform will combine two separate sets of wireless sensors to measure muscle activity (left) and shearers’ body motion and posture (right) simultaneously, allowing the study to take place inside shearing sheds instead of inside a lab. muscle activities and posture to estimate the potential injury risk. “Through family connections I know how difficult sheep shearing is, and the high risk of injuries,” said University of Melbourne PhD student Mark Robinson, who initiated the project. “While I was taking Associate Professor Oetomo’s robotics class I was introduced to his work in assistive robotics, which I thought would find a good application in sheep shearing to minimise injuries, and reduce the physical burden of a job which by most accounts has not significantly changed for 100 years. “I talked to him about the possibility of a PhD in this area, and he encouraged me to apply. We sought to work with AWI shortly after I started. It is great to work so closely with an industry partner like AWI to solve a problem that directly affects people, and hits close to home for me.” To understand the dynamics of lower back muscles under different shearing environments, factors that will be considered include whether or not each shearer has had a prior injury, the different skill level of each shearer (highly experienced or new to shearing), the age of each shearer and whether or not a back harness is used. ON FARM