Harvard University has been into soft exosuits for quite a long time. You know, those sleek, tight-fitting enhancement tech garments that make Iron Man’s “high-tech prosthesis” look like medieval armor.
The academic institution was at the forefront of its research, developing quite a number of ideas and innovations that proved its concept more and more. Just last week, the research team has yet again achieved another important milestone, an idea that makes soft exosuits excellent ‘metabolic’ boosters.
An Extra Layer of Muscle
Researchers at the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences has just developed a new exosuit, one that is designed to reduce strain and stress on the legs when running. The study posits that despite humans being one of the best endurance runners in the world, further improvement is still achievable through an assistive system that is directly built on the leg’s ability to stride.
As officially described by the study, it is “an exosuit that incorporated flexible wires connecting apparel anchored to the back of the thigh and waist belt to an external actuation unit.” When used, the exosuit acts like a secondary layer of muscle, reinforcing the already working set of muscles while reducing tension with each extended step. It kind of acts like the same flexible prosthesis they have designed over and over, but is instead built to optimize one of the most common aerobic and metabolic activities of the human body.
The biggest discovery during the research came from when they tested more naturally-oriented (wire pulling) configurations as opposed to directly optimized simulations. What they found out is that the optimized simulations actually fared better, as those configurations found a better solution that the legs as a whole just is not able to ‘reflexively’ develop. As the research puts it, “the concept that mimicking our current understanding of biology is not necessarily always optimal.”
Too Minimum for a Maximum Benefit?
Granted, the study itself claims that the benefits are generally not too significant. The publication has shown that properly configured soft exosuits could reduce the “metabolic cost” of running by about 5.4 percent. Certainly not the futuristic biosuit that could grant many times the strength of a normal human, but it’s a start.
So while the researchers admit that a fully workable running exosuit is still a bit too far on the horizon, the data they have accumulated from the current study certainly shows that it is a concept worth improving further. The research even hints that as early as the concept’s development phase is, the team is confident that an application may already be available for near-future commercial use.
The next issue now is consistency, bringing the most of its capabilities in the longest amount of time, within the smallest package possible. Remember, this is still a powered device, it needs batteries to work, and it has to consume energy to keep operating. It also needs to be light enough. After all, the “metabolic boost” thing is completely moot if your battery pack’s weight negatively impacts the performance of the wearer.
Source: Harvard SEAS