‘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
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.