Darpa funds soft exoskeleton trousers (Wired UK)

Soft Robotic ExosuitWyss Institute

Exoskeletons have helped people achieve incredible things. They
have helped the paralysed “walk” again, aiding
in their therapy
by giving nerve endings and muscles the
exercise they otherwise wouldn’t. They are helping increase safety
measures in work environments where heavy-lifting is involved –
the US Navy just released a report saying they make workers 27 times more productive.

They remain, however, cumbersome designs and bulky to don. A
team at Harvard’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired
Engineering wants to help remedy this, with a suit that is modelled
more closely to the human body, using soft materials to mimic the
joints and muscles. The idea is, one day it could be comfortably
worn under clothing to give assistance not just to those with
injuries or mobility difficulties, but those working in the field
in the military and emergency services where speed, efficiency and
endurance are paramount. Its current incarnation sees wearers pull
it on like a pair of trousers. 

In the embedded video, founder of the Harvard Biodesign Lab
Conor Walsh explains: “At Harvard we are studying the biomechanics
and physiology of human walking, trying to understand what makes
that such an efficient process. We then apply this knowledge to the
design of software of robots that act in parallel with the body’s
muscles and tendons and mimic their function.”


Harvard’s Wyss Institute


And apparently the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency
(Darpa) thinks they’re on to something, because it’s just awarded
the project $2.9 million (£1.8 million) in funding to develop the
Soft Exosuit.

Darpa has been supporting research in the field for more than a decade, and last year unveiled details on its
Warrior Web system, a lightweight exoskeleton that allows people to
carry up to 27kg. Like the work being done at the Wyss Institute,
the Warrior Web is all about mimicking and working with the body’s
own movements and forces to help soldiers use natural gait when
lifting heavy loads. Warrior Web was due to undergo real world
testing last time the agency checked in with the public. Wyss is
already on the case, with the team trialling it out and about, as
well as in the lab where they can measure the impact on the
wearer.

A huge part of its success, so far, are the new types of
textiles involved in its creation.

“It’s close fitting, comfortable and is designed so that the
structure of the textile, the load paths that the suit creates over
the body, mimic the function of the underlying muscles and
tendons,” says postdoctoral fellow Alan Asbeck. “When we provide
force with the suit this is acting in parallel with biological
muscles and tendons.”

Unlike the rigid exoskeletons we are most familiar with, the
soft suit is not there to replace all our muscles’ hard work. Walsh
explains it’s there to “provide the right level of assistance, at
the right time for the wearer”. This means using new soft sensors
that can be sewn into the smart trousers to monitor movements and
forces. These are then analysed to predict the trajectory and
trigger the appropriate assistance. Walsh notes that the legs
operate like a pendulum, with muscles stepping in to provide
“bursts of energy”. The Soft Exosuit aims to mimic that system
effortlessly and discreetly, so a wearer can go about their
business unfettered by the hardware that is helping them.

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12 September 2014 | 1:26 pm – Source: wired.co.uk

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