The robotic suit that helps its wearer to walk and run

A team of researchers has developed a device capable of adapting to the progress of its owner, in order to reduce the metabolic cost of locomotion. This advantage, equivalent to carrying up to 7 kg less weight, could be of great help for professions that involve great physical activity as rescue and military team workers.

The first bipedic ancestors of the human being emerged more than six million years ago, so we might think that this type of locomotion has already been completely optimized by nature. Nothing is further from reality, says Hypertext.

A team of US researchers and South Korea has developed a slight exotraje that allows its wearer to reduce the metabolic cost of walking and running. The study was published Thursday in the journal Science.

This is the first system capable of helping both walking and running. Although we change from one modality to another without problems, the biomechanics associated with each movement is very different.

This has been a challenge for the development of such technologies, which until now were only able to reduce the metabolic cost of one of the processes.

The metabolic reduction is modest, but helping in more than one type of activity is a new milestone for these types of devices, ”explains the researcher at the University of Nebraska Omaha (United States) and co-author of the study, Philippe Malcolm.

The exotraje, which weighs about 5 kilograms, is able to adapt to the user’s progress to provide adequate assistance, both when walking and running. This allows reducing the metabolic cost by 9.3 and 4%, respectively. In other words, this would be equivalent to having its carrier move with 7.4 and 5.7 kilograms less, respectively.

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To determine the usefulness of its creation, the researchers measured the metabolic costs of nine participants who ran and walked on a tape, and another who did it uphill.

“The (user’s) performance was good during outdoor tests,” says Malcolm. “We can expect that the device will help with performance in a way that is proportional to how it reduces metabolic cost, but this is not something we have analyzed in this study.”

Malcolm explains that walking is a “metabolically very economical” process, because “our center of mass moves like an inverse pendulum.” However, muscles such as the hip and buttocks consume a “considerable” amount of energy during movement. This is where exotrage comes into play.

“The cables (of the device) are placed around the hip and act as an extra collection of artificial muscles capable of producing a small portion of the torsion that the extensor muscles would produce.” This help serves to reduce the metabolic cost of movement for the user.

The researchers estimate that this reduction amounts to ‘remove’ 7.4 kilograms during walking and 5.7 while running. Malcolm clarifies that these figures are obtained by comparing the reduction in metabolic cost with the weight ‘lost’ that would be equivalent to this decrease.

“The comparison is made so that the reduction is understood,” he adds, due to the difficulty of understanding what this decrease means as a percentage of the metabolic cost.

A robotic suit for military and patients

Why would anyone need a walking suit? Malcolm explains that the invention “could be useful in professions that require walking fast or for a long time.” For example, “rescue and military workers.”

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The researcher ensures that the technology that allows anchoring the exotraje to the body and tells you how to act and adapt to the user’s pace could also be used for clinical purposes. In fact, the Harvard University researcher and co-author of the study, Conor Walsh, also develops a device for the rehabilitation of stroke patients.

The Walsh team also studies how to make their devices support the user’s back while performing arduous tasks. For example, when lifting large weights. In addition, they seek to lighten the weight of exotraje up to 3 kilograms.

The road to neuronal control

Until now many exoskeletons remembered the one used by Lieutenant Ripley at the end of Aliens: the return. However, prototypes such as Malcolm and his team show the extent to which the size and weight of these devices are being reduced.

For this reason, in a Perspective article published in the same issue of Science, the researcher at the University of Chicago José Pons, unrelated to Malcolm’s study, analyzes how these advances pave the way to the neuronal control of these technologies.

“The need for wearable technologies that minimally alter human biomechanics will make it move from rigid robots to light exotrages and, in the end, to implantable neuroprostheses,” writes Pons. Its purpose will be none other than improving the performance of human beings when moving.

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