Jan 18, 2019 | Updated: 03:16 PM EST

Wearable Robotics That Are a Walk In the Park

Sep 17, 2014 01:22 AM EDT


The common thought of wearable robotics is one of bionic arms and legs, transforming human movement into something rigidly mechanical. But what if the robotics were just a pair of pants? And what if they moved in the same way you did?

Developed at the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University, a new form of wearable robotics known as "the Soft Exosuit" is changing misconceptions of where robotic engineering meets biological form. Intended to be worn comfortably under traditional clothing, the Soft Exosuit is a form of technology designed with the wearer in mind with the goal of minimizing the energy required for physical movement--an important concept for soldiers in tough terrain and even those with limited mobility in the domestic domain.

After years of prototype development, the team of researchers announced this week that they were awarded a first-phase $2.9 million contract from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to develop the smart suit as a part of their Warrior Web program. Seeking to develop technology that reduce and prevent risk of musculoskeletal injuries for soldiers and civilians alike, the DARPA program issued the first of a two-phase contract in hopes that lead researcher Conor Walsh, Ph.D., and his fellow researchers could fabricate and spawn the development of an entirely new form of robotic textiles.

"While the idea of a wearable robot is not new, our design approach certainly is" Walsh said. "Soft wearable robotics is a fundamentally new technology. Traditional robotic technology is focused on industrial apps, but we are taking a fresh look at [wearable] technology for people."

By studying the physiological aspects of the simple act of walking, Walsh and his team of researchers have developed the simple suit which mimics the actions of leg muscles and tendons when a person walks, applying small, perfectly timed assistance to the joints of the legs making movement much easier on the skeleton. In the current prototype, the waist straps of the pants contain a low-power microprocessor and a network of strain sensors that act as the "brain" and "nervous system of the the Soft Exosuit, allowing for constant feedback to be provided to the wearer.

 (Photo : Harvard's Wyss Institute) Mobility Enhancing Soft Exosuit: a soft wearable robot made from lightweight and flexible materials.

"The structure of the textile, the load-paths that the suit creates over the body, mimic the function of the underlying muscles and tendons." Postdoctoral Fellow and Researcher at Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, Alan Asbeck says. "When we apply force in the suit, this is acting in parallel with biological muscles and tendons."

By applying gentle forces that act to create an ease of movement, even under difficult conditions such as carrying heavy loads, the Soft Exosuit works in tandem with the human body to simply make movement a more fluid motion. Something that the researchers hope will one day aid our nation's military forces and those with impairments in their mobility as well.

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