Tech-enhanced humans of the future — be they soldiers, officers of the law, paraplegics or the elderly — all stand to get a boost from motorized exoskeletons. But many current exoskeleton prototypes adhere to similar designs with rigid metal frames. However, a new design concept out of the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University appears to be stepping in a more flexible direction.

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As its name suggests, the Soft Exosuit does away with stiff leg scaffolding and instead uses super-elastic actuators located on the wearer’s ankles, knees and hips to help propel a person forward. Each of the suit’s “motors” are controlled by an air compressor that’s connected to a backpack on the user. The 7.5 kilogram suit is covered in flexible membrane that appear and function similar to artificial muscles.

Eventually, researchers want to integrate the system into clothing, so the Soft Exosuit can be easily worn and quickly deployed by soldiers and law enforcement officers. “You can imagine something like a spider web that’s integrated into tightly fitting pants,” Conor Walsh, a project leader from Harvard University, told NBC news.

Walsh was one of five members of the Wyss Lab to test the suit and says that getting used to the push-and-pull of the “muscles” is a bit awkward at first. But once a person gets their timing down, a noticeable boost can be felt.

Though production is still years in the making, Walsh says development of the suit will assist in three main areas: helping soldiers to walk farther and carry heavier loads, as athletic performance enhancers and in rehabilitation treatment for patients with weak or damaged muscles.

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Walsh even foresees himself wearing the  Soft Exosuit one day. “I honestly think that if I get to be 60 and I want to hike up Mt. Washington with [my kids], wearing something like this might allow me to do that,” he said. Check out this video to see the suit in action.


Credit: Harvard Biodesign Lab