Wish you suddenly had a surge of youthful energy? Harvard University's flexible exosuit promises to add pep to heavy steps.

The soft wearable robot doesn't look like much at first, but appearances can be incredibly deceiving. This unassuming gear can actually do serious heavy lifting for the wearer without hampering movement.

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Usually an exoskeleton conjures images of metal-clad Ironman. Instead, a team led by Harvard University associate professor of engineering and applied sciences Conor Walsh used textiles as the basis for their soft exosuit. The bio-inspired design creates super-human abilities that the researchers politely call “augmenting human performance."

If this suit rings a bell, that's because Walsh and his colleagues have been working on it for a few years now. An earlier version was more involved and seemed kind of awkward to walk in. Walsh, who also founded the Harvard Biodesign Lab, has since streamlined the suit so wearers appear to be walking normally.

The current iteration consists of a waist belt, two thigh pieces and two calf straps connected by cables to two motors mounted on a backpack, the researchers' description reads. Although the lightweight suit is quite different from Tony Stark's, it's smart enough to only activate upon detecting a walking motion.

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When a person walks in it, the suit senses the motion of the gait and then stiffens different parts of the fabric to assist the load on the joints and, overall, reduce the energy needed the carry a load, according to the researchers' article in the Journal of NeuroEngineering and Rehabilitation.

To find out how their tech performed, Walsh and his team tested the suit out on seven healthy participants who were used to load-carrying. The study involved three conditions: a pack containing weigh equal to 30 percent of the wearer's body mass while the suit was turned on, turned off, and turned off with an empty pack. Participants walked on a split-belt treadmill at a constant speed.

The results showed that this autonomous soft exosuit actually reduced the metabolic burden that the load carriers experienced. In other words, the robot truly took on all the heavy lifting.

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“Although many basic fundamental research and development challenges remain in actuator development, textile innovation, sensing and control, this proof of concept study provides the first demonstration of a soft wearable robot to augment gait," the researchers wrote in their journal article.

Walsh's team imagines the suit being put to use by soldiers, first responders, and other groups that carry heavy loads as well as people with physical disabilities.

Next, the team plans to do more studies on the suit and gain a better understanding of the underlying muscle mechanisms at work. I'm also hoping they can come up with a catchy name for the suit. Then maybe they can really put their feet up and take a load off.

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