London - A robotic exoskeleton that is so light and comfortable it can be slipped on like a pair of trousers is being developed by Harvard scientists for a US defence department.
The contraption, called the exosuit and comprising a harness with tubing that wraps around the wearer’s legs, helps people lift heavier loads than they are naturally capable of.
Experts hope to eventually merge the prototype exosuit with real clothing so it will become a second skin and benefit athletes, soldiers and those who cannot walk because of muscle injuries.
“You can imagine something like a spider web that’s integrated into tightly fitting pants,” said Conor Walsh, a robotics researcher at Harvard University’s Wyss Institute and leader of the team that designed and built the exosuit.
The suit is not the first robotic exoskeleton to have been trialled, although it is probably the most comfortable.
Hard metal and plastic outfits like these are already beginning to give paralysed people the ability to free themselves of wheelchairs but they are heavy, cumbersome units of machinery.
The exosuit is more of an enhancer than an assistant. It is much lighter than the hard prosthetic exoskeletons, weighing just 7.5kg (not including the air supply that drives the artificial “muscles”).
Also, the suit relies on the existing movement of the legs as a person walks – its talent is adding extra power or force at just the right moment.
The suit’s performance was tested by five healthy men after they trained to use it for about three days. Walsh said the suit was confusing to react to at first, but once a person adjusted to the extra “body part”, they felt the subtle benefits.
He said: “When you wear it, you feel like you’re getting a bit of a boost. After you stop wearing it, you notice that you don’t have that extra assist any more.”
Though applications and large-scale manufacturing are years away, Walsh says the suit will see development in three main areas.
In the military, it is hoped it will help soldiers walk further and carry heavier loads. For athletes, it could form the basis for performance-enhancing prostheses.
And, in rehabilitation medicine it could be a breakthrough treatment for people who can no longer walk because their muscles are damaged.
The suit would need to be custom-fit to a person’s frame and gait, but that’s a one-time thing, Walsh says. “If you buy a bicycle you have to adjust the handlebars and then it’s set.”
After that, “every time they want to wear it, they (can) pull it on like a piece of clothing”. – Daily Mail