Soft Exosuit Makes Walking and Running Easier Than Ever

A lightweight, flexible exosuit pulls on your muscles as you move to make you more efficient

3 min read
The portable exosuit is made of textile components worn at the waist and thighs, and a mobile actuation system attached to the lower back which uses an algorithm that robustly predicts transitions between walking and running gaits.
The portable exosuit is made of textile components worn at the waist and thighs, and a mobile actuation system attached to the lower back which uses an algorithm that robustly predicts transitions between walking and running gaits.
Photo: Wyss Institute at Harvard University

Researchers at Harvard’s Wyss Institute have been testing a flexible, lightweight exosuit that can improve your metabolic efficiency by 4 to 10 percent while walking and running. This is very important because, according to a press release from Harvard, the suit can help you be faster and more efficient, whether you’re “walking at a leisurely pace,” or “running for your life.” Great!

Making humans better at running for their lives is something that we don’t put nearly enough research effort into, I think. The problem may not come up very often, but when it does, it’s super important (because, bears). So, sign me up for anything that we can do to make our desperate flights faster or more efficient—especially if it’s a lightweight, wearable exosuit that’s soft, flexible, and comfortable to wear.

This is the same sort of exosuit that was part of a DARPA program that we wrote about a few years ago, which was designed to make it easier for soldiers to carry heavy loads for long distances.

Views of the exosuit Photos: Wyss Institute at Harvard University

The system uses two waist-mounted electrical motors connected with cables to thigh straps that run down around your butt. The motors pull on the cables at the same time that your muscles actuate, helping them out and reducing the amount of work that your muscles put in without decreasing the amount of force they exert on your legs. The entire suit (batteries included) weighs 5 kilograms (11 pounds).

In order for the cables to actuate at the right time, the suit tracks your gait with two inertial measurement units (IMUs) on the thighs and one on the waist, and then adjusts its actuation profile accordingly. It works well, too, with measurable increases in performance:

We show that a portable exosuit that assists hip extension can reduce the metabolic rate of treadmill walking at 1.5 meters per second by 9.3 percent and that of running at 2.5 meters per second by 4.0 percent compared with locomotion without the exosuit. These reduction magnitudes are comparable to the effects of taking off 7.4 and 5.7 kilograms during walking and running, respectively, and are in a range that has shown meaningful athletic performance changes.

By increasing your efficiency, you can think of the suit as being able to make you walk or run faster, or farther, or carry a heavier load, all while spending the same amount of energy (or less), which could be just enough to outrun the bear that’s chasing you. Plus, it doesn’t appear to be uncomfortable to wear, and doesn’t require the user to do anything differently, which means that (unlike most robotics things) it’s maybe actually somewhat practical for real-world use—whether you’re indoors or outdoors, or walking or running, or being chased by a bear or not.

Sadly, I have no idea when you might be able to buy one of these things. But the researchers are looking for ways to make the suit even easier to use, while also reducing the weight and making the efficiency increase more pronounced. Harvard’s Conor Walsh says they’re “excited to continue to apply it to a range of applications, including assisting those with gait impairments, industry workers at risk of injury performing physically strenuous tasks, or recreational weekend warriors.” As a weekend warrior who is not entirely sure whether he can outrun a bear, I’m excited for this.

Reducing the metabolic rate of walking and running with a versatile, portable exosuit, by Jinsoo Kim, Giuk Lee, Roman Heimgartner, Dheepak Arumukhom Revi, Nikos Karavas, Danielle Nathanson, Ignacio Galiana, Asa Eckert-Erdheim, Patrick Murphy, David Perry, Nicolas Menard, Dabin Kim Choe, Philippe Malcolm, and Conor J. Walsh from the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University, appears in the current issue of Science.

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Robot with threads near a fallen branch

RoMan, the Army Research Laboratory's robotic manipulator, considers the best way to grasp and move a tree branch at the Adelphi Laboratory Center, in Maryland.

Evan Ackerman
LightGreen

“I should probably not be standing this close," I think to myself, as the robot slowly approaches a large tree branch on the floor in front of me. It's not the size of the branch that makes me nervous—it's that the robot is operating autonomously, and that while I know what it's supposed to do, I'm not entirely sure what it will do. If everything works the way the roboticists at the U.S. Army Research Laboratory (ARL) in Adelphi, Md., expect, the robot will identify the branch, grasp it, and drag it out of the way. These folks know what they're doing, but I've spent enough time around robots that I take a small step backwards anyway.

This article is part of our special report on AI, “The Great AI Reckoning.”

The robot, named RoMan, for Robotic Manipulator, is about the size of a large lawn mower, with a tracked base that helps it handle most kinds of terrain. At the front, it has a squat torso equipped with cameras and depth sensors, as well as a pair of arms that were harvested from a prototype disaster-response robot originally developed at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory for a DARPA robotics competition. RoMan's job today is roadway clearing, a multistep task that ARL wants the robot to complete as autonomously as possible. Instead of instructing the robot to grasp specific objects in specific ways and move them to specific places, the operators tell RoMan to "go clear a path." It's then up to the robot to make all the decisions necessary to achieve that objective.

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