A team of researchers at Harvard University have developed a prototype robotic exoskeleton, otherwise know as a ’smart suit’. Made from soft materials and worn from the waist down, the device has been designed to gradually assist the wearer in the movements they’re making, supplementing their natural power by up to 20 percent.
“You actually don’t really notice that it’s helping you. But as soon as you turn the system off, it makes you instantly feel that your legs are heavy, which shows that your legs have adapted,” engineer Conor Walsh, head of Harvard’s Biodesign Lab, told Jessica Leber at FastCompany.
Not only could this suit be used to enhance the movements of soldiers and firefighters, making them faster, more agile, and better able to transport heavy equipment, but it could also be worn by stroke victims to make the slow and painful recovery process easier, and the elderly, to protect them from life-threatening falls and injuries. But don’t worry about your grandma looking like a cyborg - the exoskeleton has been designed to be so lightweight and flexible, it can be worn under clothing.
"The suit works by mimicking the action of the leg muscles and tendons when a person walks, with an actuator system giving small, carefully timed assistance at the ankle and hip joints without restricting the wearer’s movement,” says Leber at FastCompany. "The breakthrough is in the 'structured functional textiles' that transmit those applied forces all over the body during natural movement. Wearable, flexible sensors integrate into the fabric to gauge the body’s movement and provide support at the right moment.”
The device can be used for up to four hours on a single charge, and weighs 6 kilograms. While the team has so far performed over 200 sessions with volunteers in Harvard’s motion capture lab to fine-tune when and how the device automatically applies its force, they’re still working on how the wearer is able to interact with it.
“We don’t know if the person uses that extra assistance so they can go faster, or if they say, okay, I can walk at my happy, normal pace and just use a little less effort,” Walsh told Leber. “Early evidence is showing that the underlying muscles take the assistance and decide to do less work. ... You’re not necessarily making them jump higher or run faster, you’re helping them perform over a long period of time.”
The team has even teamed up with clothing company New Balance to see if they can use this technology to develop new hi-tech sports wear.
Here's how it works: