(Credit: Wyss Institute) You heard it here first: robotic exoskeletons are poised to become 2014’s hottest fashion trend. Scientists are perfecting a prototype of the exoskeleton equivalent of skinny jeans. Robotic exoskeletons are certainly carving out useful niches in the real world: from helping paralyzed people walk again to making shipbuilders stronger. But most of these devices are built of heavy, bulky materials. Now, researchers at Harvard’s Wyss Institute have created an exoskeleton that uses soft materials to work with the body's own movements, and which you can pull on like a tight-fitting pair of Levis.
Working in Harmony
Researchers studied the mechanics of human walking to pinpoint how and which muscles flexed and relaxed with each step. We walk in a pendulum-like fashion as one leg swings in front of the other, and our muscles work in a coordinated way to inject bursts of energy that keep this motion going. The new exoskeleton pants are designed with soft, gummy “muscles” and cable “tendons” sewn into the fabric. The artificial muscles and tendons work in parallel with our biological muscles to give them a boost as we walk. For example, a cable that runs parallel to the Achilles’ tendon helps lift the heel with every step. Batteries and motors that are worn around the waist in a belt-pack control all the action.
The soft skeleton helps reduce fatigue and risk of injury in someone carrying a backpack or heavy equipment for long distances. Given the fact that shouldering heavy loads is a daily reality for soldiers, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has invested $2.9 million to continue developing the soft exoskeleton, Wired UK reports. Researchers say their exoskeleton pants could also help the elderly or people with limited mobility get around. And who knows, maybe if they become streamlined enough, exoskeleton pants will become an everyday reality for all of us. In which case that would give a whole new meaning to "supportive garments."