To monitor energy expenditure, test subjects wore a respiration mask that measured oxygen and carbon dioxide levels.
“Knowing these measurements and how gas is exchanged in the body, we can estimate the metabolic rate of an individual in watts per unit body mass,” Jackson said.
The experiments showed that the exoskeleton assistance reaches its peak optimization after about an hour, with some volunteers reducing energy expenditure more than 30 percent. With each step, the mechanical unit and the test subject basically respond and adapt to one another.
“Throughout the optimization, the user’s performance is measured and the device adjusts its behavior accordingly,” Jackson said. “Therefore, the device is learning what is optimal for the user, as the user learns how to best walk with assistance.”
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With the ankle emulator showing such promising results, one wonders whether this exoskeleton system could be modified to work with other parts of the human body. Jackson thinks it can.
“Our lab is currently developing a full lower-limb exoskeleton that assists at the ankle, knee, and hip joints,” she said. “We’re planning on using the same approach to discover an optimal assistance strategy for this multi-joint exoskeleton.”
To be clear, the research team isn’t aiming to improve the human species in a kind of comic book, superhero kind of way. The goals are short-term and practical.
“We expect such devices to enhance performance in able-bodied individuals, to walk or run faster or farther, and to aid in load carriage for soldiers,” Jackson said. “We also think such devices will be able to assist those with gait impairments, such as amputees, post-stroke individuals, and those with other neurological injuries.”
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