Some day this smart garment from Harvard could boost the endurance and strength of everyone from soldiers and firefighters to the elderly and outdoor enthusiasts.
The difficult thing about wearing Harvard University engineer Conor Walsh’s robotic exosuit— a soft textile garment designed to enhance a human’s natural mobility—isn’t putting it on. It’s taking it off.
When a test subject dons the waist-down outfit and attaches the battery pack to his waist, a gradual force begins to assist his leg muscles in movement, supplementing his power up to 20%. “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,” says Walsh, who heads Harvard’s Biodesign Lab.
The system is the latest prototype of a wearable robotics project being developed at Harvard’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering. If all goes according to Walsh’s vision, the smart suit could one day assist soldiers and firefighters in carrying heavy loads, help stroke victims recover their movement and the elderly avoid falls and injuries, and even give a boost to everyday outdoor enthusiasts who want to hike longer.
Most people think of robots as standalone machines. But the growing field of wearable robotics aims to give human bodies themselves superhuman abilities. Companies like Ekso Bionics, for example, are developing exoskeletons towards this aim, many working under DARPA’s “Warrior Web” program.
Walsh’s suit–now funded with a new $2.9 million DARPA grant–is similar, but it’s also unique. Other systems in development are heavy and rigid, like skeletons, so they can provide the support needed to perform miracles like helping the paralyzed walk again. The soft exosuit uses a different a completely different design approach: It’s lightweight, flexible at the joints, and intended to be worn underneath clothing by healthy people or those needing smaller levels of assistance.