Are exoskeletons next season's must-have fashion accessory?

Exoskeletons may not yet offer the capabilities of Tony Stark's armoured flight suit of Iron Man fame, but a new wearable robotic suit being developed at Harvard's Wyss Institute is a potential game-changer.

Instead of the bulky, heavy metal versions that have been developed recently, researchers at Wyss turned to soft materials that work with the body's own movements and can be worn under clothing like a high tech, strength- and endurance-enhancing pair of long johns.

It could help people walk further, tire less easily, and carry heavy loads. The suit uses artificial muscles and tendons that work in parallel with a person's own muscles to give them a boost as they walk. The whole thing is powered by batteries and electric motors attached to a belt.

Wyss has just won support to the tune of nearly $3 million from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to further develop the "Soft Exosuit".

The team also plans to work with clinical partners to develop a medical version of the suit that could help stroke victims walk again.

The Harvard Gazette explains.

The lightweight Soft Exosuit overcomes the drawbacks of traditional, heavier exoskeleton systems, such as power-hungry battery packs and rigid components that can interfere with natural joint movement. It is made of soft, functional textiles woven into a piece of smart clothing that is pulled on like a pair of pants, and is intended to be worn under a soldier’s regular gear. The suit mimics the action of leg muscles and tendons when a person walks, and provides small but carefully timed assistance at the leg joints without restricting the wearer’s movement...
In a current prototype, a series of webbing straps around the lower half of the body contain a low-power microprocessor and a network of supple strain sensors. These act as the “brain” and “nervous system” of the Soft Exosuit, respectively, continuously monitoring various data signals, including suit tension, wearer position (walking, running, crouched), and more.

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