PHILADELPHIA (AP) -- Need a hand lifting something? A robotic device invented by University of Pennsylvania engineering students can help its wearer carry an additional 40 pounds.
Titan Arm looks and sounds like part of a superhero's costume. But its creators say it's designed for ordinary people - those who need either physical rehabilitation or a little extra muscle for their job.
In technical terms, the apparatus is an untethered, upper-body exoskeleton; to the layman, it's essentially a battery-powered arm brace attached to a backpack. Either way, Titan Arm's cost-efficient design has won the team accolades and at least $75,000 in prize money.
"They built something that people can relate to," said Robert Carpick, chairman of Penn's mechanical engineering department. "And of course it appeals clearly to what we've all seen in so many science-fiction movies of superhuman strength being endowed by an exoskeleton."
The project builds on existing studies of such body equipment, sometimes called "wearable robots." Research companies have built lower-body exoskeletons that help paralyzed people walk, though current models aren't approved for retail and can cost $50,000 to $100,000.
The Penn students were moved by the power of that concept - restoring mobility to those who have suffered traumas - as well as the idea of preventing injuries in those who perform repetitive heavy-lifting tasks, team member Nick Parrotta said.
"When we started talking to physical therapists and prospective users, or people who have gone through these types of injuries, we just kept on getting more and more motivated," said Parrotta, now in graduate school at the university.
So for their senior capstone project last year, Parrotta and classmates Elizabeth Beattie, Nick McGill and Niko Vladimirov set out to develop an affordable, lightweight suit for the right arm. They modeled pieces using 3-D printers and computer design programs, eventually making most components out of aluminum, Beattie said.
The final product cost less than $2,000 and weighs 18 pounds - less than the backpack that Beattie usually carries. A handheld joystick controls motorized cables that raise and lower the arm; sensors measure the wearer's range of motion to help track rehab progress.
Since its unveiling, Titan Arm has won the $10,000 Intel Cornell Cup USA and the $65,000 James Dyson Award. The resulting publicity generated a slew of interest from potential users, including grandparents who find it hard to lift their grandchildren.
"We found out that some people can't even lift a cast-iron pan to cook dinner," McGill said.
Experts say the aging population represents a potentially big customer base for exoskeletons, which originally were researched for military applications.
"There is certainly a market, but it's slowly emerging because the systems are not perfect as yet," said Paolo Bonato, director of the Motion Analysis Lab at Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital in Boston.
Titan Arm's design impressed Yong-Lae Park, an assistant professor of robotics at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh who watched a video demonstration. He noted, though, that its low cost represent parts only, not the salaries or marketing built into the price of other products.
Park's research is focused on making exoskeletons less noticeable - "more like a Spider-Man suit than an Iron Man suit," he said.
The Titan team hopes to refine its prototype, although three members are now busy with graduate studies at Penn and one is working on the West Coast.
Among the considerations, Parrotta said, are different control strategies and more innovative materials and manufacturing.
And, of course, a second arm.
AMSTERDAM (AP) -- The European Food Safety Authority has found that the artificial sweetener aspartame is safe for people to consume at the levels currently used in diet soft drinks.
After conducting a major review of evidence, the agency said Tuesday it has ruled out any "potential risk of aspartame causing damage to genes and inducing cancer."
The finding will be welcome news to Coca Cola Co., which recently launched an advertising campaign to dispel fears about Diet Coke after other studies showed that aspartame might be dangerous, leading to a fall in sales.
Aspartame, the sweetener used in Diet Coke, is also known under the brand name NutraSweet.
The ESFA, the European Union's food risk assessment agency, is based in Parma, Italy.
MONTEVIDEO, Uruguay (AP) -- Uruguay's plan to set up a legal, regulated marijuana market has reached its final legislative stage, with the Senate expected to approve the plan by late Tuesday and send it to President Jose Mujica for his signature.
Senators prepared for a long day and night of speeches after debate begins Tuesday morning. The body is dominated by Mujica's ruling Broad Front coalition, which wants to make Uruguay the world's first nation to put the government at the center of a legalized marijuana trade.
Congress' lower house already passed it, and the Senate rejected all proposed amendments, so Senate passage would put the law on the desk of Mujica, who is one of the plan's biggest boosters despite saying he's never tried pot himself.
"This is a plague, just like cigarettes are a plague," Mujica told reporters recently.
Polls say two-thirds of Uruguayans oppose the plan, despite a national TV campaign and other lobbying efforts funded by billionaire currency speculator and philanthropist George Soros, whose Open Society Foundation and Drug Policy Alliance campaigned for the proposal.
Hannah Hetzer, a lobbyist for the Alliance, moved to Montevideo for the campaign, and celebrated the Senate's expected passage. "It's about time that we see a country bravely break with the failed prohibitionist model and try an innovative, more compassionate, and smarter approach," she said in a statement Monday night.
Mujica says the goal is to get organized crime out of marijuana dealing, not to promote the use of pot. The government hopes that when licensed growers, providers and users can openly trade in the drug, illegal traffickers will be denied their profits and go away.
During its hearings, the Senate Health Commission received extensive arguments from educators, psychiatrists and pharmacists urging it to back away from the plan.
Psychiatrists predicted a rise in mental illness. Pharmacists said selling pot alongside prescription drugs would harm their professional image.
Marijuana's negative impact on learning is well known, and "is related to educational failure, behavioral problems and depressive symptoms," teacher Nestor Pereira testified, representing the National Public Education Administration.
But Senate committees sent the proposal for a floor vote without changes, hoping to avoid a return trip to the lower chamber, where it passed by a single vote.
Socialist Deputy Julio Bango, who co-authored the proposal, told The Associated Press: "This is not a law to liberalize marijuana consumption, but rather to regulate it. Today there is a market dominated by drug traffickers. We want the state to dominate it."
The project includes a media campaign, launched Friday, aimed at reducing pot smoking by warning of its dangers to human health.
Uruguay's drug czar, Julio Calzada, said no pharmacist or other business will be forced to sell the drug.
Calzada said his office will have 120 days to craft regulations following adoption. Mujica pledged that his government will work through the traditional southern summer holidays to make the rules as precise as possible.
"There will be much to discuss and to work on. We'll spend the summer working. There's nothing magic about this," the president said.
As for concerns that Uruguay could become a mecca for marijuana tourism, Mujica stressed that the measure would restrict the legal sale of pot only to licensed and registered Uruguayan adults.
Marijuana grower Marcelo Vazquez told the AP he can't wait to pay taxes on the weed he's grown illegally for 20 years. After repeated police raids and arrests, he's optimistic. He has a greenhouse of marijuana plants growing outside Montevideo and is thinking about creating a business catering to licensed growers who lack space in their own homes.
"This is a huge opportunity and we have to take advantage of it," Vazquez said. "My lifelong dream has been to legally cultivate marijuana, and to live off this, to pay my taxes."