Need help walking and running? Consider robo-wear


Harvard-led project leverages variable biomechanics but tests fashion sense. Barry Keily reports.


Style issues aside, exo-shorts are designed to assist hip reflexion while walking uphill and running at different speeds in natural terrain.

Wyss Institute at Harvard University

The solution to a major challenge in robotics might have a significant downside, at least in terms of appearances.

The potential benefits of robotic exo-suits in reducing the metabolic costs of walking and running are the subject of a great deal of research. However, because the two gaits have fundamentally different biomechanics, a single wearable solution that improves performance in both has proved elusive.

Now, however, roboticists led by Jinsoo Kim of Harvard University in the US have come up with a design that results in modest reductions in the energy costs of running and walking without the need for recalibration.

Their invention, described in the journal Science, holds obvious promise across a range of human work activities, but also represents a potential hurdle to the widespread normalisation of wearable tech that needs to occur over the next few years.

Exo-suits, it is generally agreed, look very cool. But how will consumers feel about exo-shorts?

Kim and colleagues overcame the fundamentally different hip and ankle mechanics of walking and running by constructing truncated exo-wear: a structure in which batteries, actuators and cables are all contained in a flexible covering that begins at the waist and then bifurcates onto the legs, ending just above the knees.

The garment thus looks like a pair of high-tech shorts, but weighs in at a hefty five kilograms. It is capable of detecting changes in the gait of the wearer and adjusting its own mechanics accordingly.

The researchers report that the robo-shorts “can reduce the metabolic rate of treadmill walking at 1.5 metres per second by 9.3% and that of running at 2.5 metres per second by 4.0%”.

Although perhaps a modest gain in efficiency, the result, Kim and colleagues add, is the equivalent of reducing the wearer’s weight by 7.4 kilograms when walking and 5.7 kilograms when running.

Additional tests showed that the garment also delivered noticeable benefits for walking, or running, uphill or across unpaved terrain. The primary advantage of the design, the researchers say, is that it leverages rather than constrains the variable mechanics of human gait.

Further refinements will likely see significant increases in metabolic efficiency, allowing wearers to endure longer periods of exercise.

Whether they will be able to do so without attracting the withering gaze of passers-by, however, remains to be seen.

  1. https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-019-45914-5
  2. https://jeb.biologists.org/content/early/2019/08/07/jeb.202895.abstract
  3. https://science.sciencemag.org/cgi/doi/10.1126/science.aaw9407
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