Space & Innovation

Soft Wearable Bot Does All Your Heavy Lifting

A flexible exosuit promises to add pep to heavy steps, easily carrying cumbersome loads without hampering movement.

<p>UPHIGH Productions, YouTube screenshot<span></span></p>

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.

Lockheed Martin’s untethered, hydraulic-powered anthropomorphic exoskeleton called HULC provides users with the ability to carry loads of up to 200 pounds for extended periods of time and over all terrains. It enables fighters to carry heavy combat loads with the help of powered titanium legs and an onboard micro-computer that ensures the suit moves in concert with the individual.

Eyes have been on Raytheon Sarcos’s second-generation exoskeleton robotics suit, XOS 2, for quite some time. Currently in development, the wearable robotic suit increases the human strength, agility and endurance capabilities of the person wearing it. XOS 2 uses high-pressure hydraulics to help the wearer repeatedly lift heavy objects.

The U.S. Army is developing an exoskeleton called MAXFAS, also known as the Mobile Arm Exoskeleton for Firearm Aim Stabilization, to automatically steady a soldier’s firing arm. The technology actively senses and cancels out arm trembling and keeps the shooter’s arm free to point at targets.

In June 2014, a young adult paralyzed from the waist down kicked off the World Cup in an exoskeleton, The Walk Again Project, led by Dr. Miguel Nicolelis, is a nonprofit collaboration with Duke University and the Technical University of Munich, among others. The exoskeleton is mind-controlled. As a result, the exoskeleton's steps were controlled by the paralyzed wearer's thoughts.

Some real-life Iron Man suits empower users with superhero capabilities, such as lifting heavy objects and boosting stamina and endurance. Other exoskeletons give real hope to patients suffering from various injuries and could even help a person walk again. Here’s a closer look at some of the most cutting-edge exoskeleton and how they're advancing science and society. Above: The two-armed robotic exoskeleton named Harmony uses mechanical feedback and sensor data to provide therapy to patients with spinal and neurological injuries. Developed by researchers at the Cockrell School of Engineering at the University of Texas at Austin, Harmony aims to provide full upper-body therapy with a degree of natural motion to help patients, say, eat and dress themselves.

Researchers at Carnegie Mellon and North Carolina State have developed an unpowered ankle exoskeleton to reduce the overall metabolic rate of walking. Intended to help people who have had a stroke walk more easily, the clutch engages a spring in parallel with the Achilles tendon to offload force from the calf.

The Fortis exoskeleton, also developed by Lockheed Martin, boasts an advanced ergonomic design that moves naturally with the body to allow users to use heavy tools as if they were weightless. Wearers can effortlessly hold heavy hand tools and benefit from an increase in productivity while reducing muscle fatigue.

Panasonic’s Power Loader Light exoskeleton increases the leg strength of the wearer by up to 88 pounds. The aluminum-alloy frame weighs in at a hefty 84 pounds, but allegedly provides great strength to the legs for heavy lifting.

The Titan Arm, a portable, affordable exoskeleton designed to augment strength and provide resistance during therapeutic exercises, allows the wearer to lift an additional 40 pounds with minimal effort. It was developed by engineering students at the University of Pennsylvania. The $2,000 prototype aims to help stroke victims and others faced with debilitating injuries.

ReWalk, developed by Argo Medical Technologies, is the first motorized exoskeleton cleared by the FDA for personal use. Designed to help people with lower body paralysis from spinal cord injury, ReWalk provides a wearable brace support, a computer-based control system and motion sensors. Users can stand, walk and climb stairs with some motorized help.