‘Robo-shorts’ a step in the right di­rec­tion

Ro­botic cloth­ing could help the frail to walk again, while also giv­ing sol­diers a leg up on the bat­tle­field

The Daily Telegraph - - Front Page - By Sarah Knap­ton SCI­ENCE ED­I­TOR

Sci­en­tists say they have cre­ated a pair of “robo-shorts” that could help peo­ple who have dif­fi­culty walk­ing. An up­dated ver­sion of the ex­o­suit, which aids move­ment, will en­able wear­ers to move about and switch from walk­ing to run­ning with rel­a­tive ease. Tri­als sug­gest peo­ple feel about 17lb lighter on their feet and more able to tackle steep hills and stairs. They were de­signed to help troops with heavy back­packs but they could be adapted for the frail and el­derly.

WHILE ro­botic trousers may have gone fa­mously wrong for the an­i­mated char­ac­ters Wallace and Gromit, sci­en­tists are claim­ing to have taken a step for­ward with the de­vel­op­ment of new “robo-shorts” that could help the frail to walk again.

Ex­o­suits, which aid move­ment, have been avail­able in the past but they were gen­er­ally bulky and could not vary speed, mak­ing them less prac­ti­cal for ev­ery­day use.

But the re­searchers have de­vel­oped new shorts that al­low the wearer to move about – and cru­cially switch from walk­ing to run­ning – with­out los­ing per­for­mance.

The ex­o­suit was de­vel­oped by the US mil­i­tary to help sol­diers pa­trol for lengthy pe­ri­ods in rugged and up­hill ter­rain while wear­ing bulky equip­ment. The de­vice works through a se­ries of elec­tron­i­cally ac­ti­vated pul­leys and thigh wraps at­tached to a belt that helps lift the legs at the hip joint, mak­ing each step slightly eas­ier.

In tread­mill tests, the shorts re­duced ef­fort in walk­ing by 9.3 per cent and in run­ning by 4 per cent – equiv­a­lent to a per­son walk­ing or run­ning with up to 17lb less weight. Some­times sol­diers on pa­trol must carry up to 100lb in equip­ment. And as the shorts can work on vary­ing gra­di­ents, they could also be har­nessed by climbers to help them up­hill, or to help the el­derly climb the stairs at home.

Dr Conor Walsh, a founder of the Har­vard Biode­sign Lab in the US, said: “We were ex­cited to see that the de­vice per­formed well dur­ing up­hill walk­ing, at dif­fer­ent run­ning speeds and dur­ing test­ing over the ground out­side, which showed the ver­sa­til­ity of the sys­tem.”

In­cor­po­rat­ing the abil­ity to walk and run in a sin­gle de­vice has proved tricky in the past as the two move­ments are me­chan­i­cally dif­fer­ent. The shorts are con­trolled by an al­go­rithm that knows when a user moves from walk­ing to run­ning or vice versa, and ad­justs ten­sion on the legs ac­cord­ingly. As the body’s cen­tre of mass changes when run­ning or walk­ing, sen­sors de­tect when the wearer has ac­cel­er­ated or slowed down.

Dr Philippe Mal­colm, as­sis­tant pro­fes­sor at the Univer­sity of Ne­braska, Omaha, said: “Once a gait tran­si­tion is de­tected, the ex­o­suit au­to­mat­i­cally ad­justs to as­sist the other gait.” The re­searchers pre­vi­ously de­vel­oped a multi-joint suit that moved both the hip and an­kle dur­ing walk­ing, and a med­i­cal ver­sion aimed at im­prov­ing gait for stroke sur­vivors is used in hos­pi­tals across Europe and the US.

Ex­perts be­lieve that the shorts will open the door to im­plants that can ac­ti­vate mus­cles with­out the need for an ex­ter­nal ex­o­suit.

The re­search, con­ducted at Har­vard Univer­sity’s Wyss In­sti­tute for Bi­o­log­i­cally In­spired Engi­neer­ing, was pub­lished in the jour­nal Sci­ence.

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