A team at the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard have developed a Soft Exosuit, which works with natural body movement, such as when a person is walking. It also provides “small but carefully timed assistance” at the leg joints to enhance the wearer’s mobility.
The Soft Exosuit is part of DARPA’s Warrior Web program designed to reduce military injuries, and is so light and flexible that you can slip it on like a pair of pants.
DARPA will be awarding the Wyss Institute with up to $2.9 million for continued exosuit research, grant money that is contingent on the achievement of certain technical milestones.
In its present form, the smart suit is able to adapt to movement using assistance from unique textiles and other advanced technologies.
“Certain components of the suit align with muscles and tendons, such as the hip and ankles, and microprocessors and sensors detect what a person is trying to do,” said Conor Walsh, Ph.D., a Wyss Institute Core Faculty member.
“Soft wearable robotics is a fundamentally new technology,” Walsh said. “Traditional robotic technology is focused on industrial apps, but we are taking a fresh look at wearable technology for people.”
The suit uses a “low-power microprocessor and a network of supple strain sensors” to monitor various movements, including running and walking.
At present, wearable robots are rigid, restricting mobility, however Soft Exosuits feature light and flexible power seams that won’t impede movement or restrict military operations.
The major military appeal of the system is the reduction of fatigue and injuries for soldiers carrying out physically demanding tasks or missions. But that doesn’t mean that a civilian version of the technology can’t be applied outside of the military.
“Over just a couple of short years, Conor and his team will work to fundamentally shift the paradigm of what is possible in wearable robotics,” said Wyss Institute Founding Director Don Ingber, M.D., Ph.D.
“Their work is a great example of the power of bringing together people from multiple disciplines with focused resources to translate what first seems like a dream into a product that could transform people’s lives.”
Dr. Walsh and his team are hopeful that their Soft Exosuits may also be used to aid people with impairments.
For example, stroke patients may have one leg with limited mobility, but an equipped smart suit could help restore the movement and symmetry of an impaired limb, matching a healthy one.
Imagine the possibilities and the lives impacted.
The U.S. Army Research Laboratory will be evaluating the Soft Exosuits later this month.