Without using any power, this leg-mounted exoskeleton makes walking more efficient

Ever since our ancestors started walking upright, we humans have evolved to become extremely efficient walkers. In fact, simulations of human locomotion show that walking at a constant speed across level ground should theoretically require almost no power input at all; but anyone who works on their feet or has gone on a hike knows otherwise. For some reason, walking is more difficult than it should be — but engineers are beginning to figure out ways to fix that.

According to a recent study published in Nature, researchers at Carnegie Mellon and North Carolina State have developed a leg-mounted exoskeleton that has been shown to reduce the metabolic cost of walking by around 7 percent — without using any motors or electricity.

To achieve this, the researchers had to first gain a more detailed understanding of how human locomotion works. After years of studying the biomechanics of walking, Steve Collins and Greg Sawicki discovered that the calf muscle not only exerts energy when pushing a person forward, but also when performing a clutch-like action to hold the Achilles tendon taut.

“Studies show that the calf muscles are primarily producing force isometrically, without doing any work, during the stance phase of walking, but still using substantial metabolic energy,” Collins explained. “This is the opposite of regenerative braking. It’s as if every time you push on the brake pedal in your car, you burn a little bit of gas.”

To remedy this inefficiency, the duo constructed an ingenious mechanical system that reduces the work your calf does while you walk. Here’s how:

Each carbon-fiber frame features a spring that connects the back of the foot to just below the back of the knee, where it attaches with a mechanical clutch. When the user’s Achilles tendon is being stretched, the clutch is engaged and the spring — working like an additional tendon– stretches and helps to store energy. After the standing leg pushes down, unleashing elastic energy, the clutch releases and absorbs the slack in the spring in preparation for the next cycle.

The only downside (as you can see in the video) is that you sound like a poorly-oiled robot while you walk, and squeak with each step. Of course, this is just an early prototype though, so Collins and Sawicki will probably address the squeakiness in future iterations of their exoskeleton. No word on when this gizmo will make it out of the lab, but keep your fingers crossed and you and I might be able to get exoskeletons of our own within the next couple years.

Business

4 women innovators who are using tech to help others live better lives

Meet four women leaders who are not only at the forefront of technology today, but also using tech — from robotics and medicine to food and undergarments — to help others.
Emerging Tech

Desk lamps take on a new task by converting their light to power

What if we could charge devices using light from indoor sources like desk lamps? A group of scientists working on a technology called organic photovoltaics (OPVs) aim to do just that.
Emerging Tech

This very talented robotic leg learned to walk all by itself

Researchers at the University of Southern California have developed a robotic limb capable of walking without preprogrammed knowledge of the task. It’s an impressive feat that could help future robots navigate the world independently.
Smart Home

Should you buy a dishwasher or wait? Here are the best times to buy appliances

Need a new dishwasher or oven? Depending on when you buy, you could be paying a vastly different price. This appliance buying guide will help you figure out the best times to get those appliance deals.
Emerging Tech

Gorgeous image of the Cosmic Bat nebula leaves us starry-eyed

The "Cosmic Bat" nebula has been captured in beautiful detail by the European Southern Observatory. Formally known as NGC 1788, the nebula is two thousand light-years away in a dark corner of the Orion constellation.
Emerging Tech

Super telescope captures supermassive black holes forming billions of years ago

The Subaru Telescope in Hawaii has captured evidence of supermassive black holes forming in the ancient universe. Astronomers discovered 83 quasars powered by supermassive black holes from billions of years ago.
Emerging Tech

Awesome Tech You Can’t Buy Yet: Write music with your voice, make homemade cheese

Check out our roundup of the best new crowdfunding projects and product announcements that hit the web this week. You may not be able to buy this stuff yet, but it sure is fun to gawk!
Emerging Tech

Mind-bending model shows Venus isn’t our nearest neighbor — it’s Mercury

Every textbook and table on the internet agrees -- the closest planet to Earth is Venus. But a new mathematical model shows that this is wrong. In fact, the planet closest to us on average is Mercury.
Emerging Tech

Body surrogate robot helps people with motor impairments care for themselves

A team from Georgia Tech has come up with an assistant robot to help people who have severe motor impairments to perform tasks like shaving, brushing their hair, or drinking water.
Emerging Tech

New Hubble image displays dazzling Messier 28 globular cluster

Messier 28 is a group of stars in the constellation of Sagittarius, located 18,000 light-years from our planet. Thousands of stars are packed tightly together in this sparkling image.
Emerging Tech

Cosmic dust bunnies: Scientists find unexpected ring around Mercury

A pair of scientists searching for a dust-free region near the Sun have made an unexpected discovery: a vast cosmic dust ring millions of miles wide around the tiny planet Mercury.
Emerging Tech

Take a dip in the Lagoon Nebula in first image from SPECULOOS instrument

The European Southern Observatory has released the first image collected by their new SPECULOOS instrument, and it's a stunning portrait of the Lagoon Nebula, a swirling cloud of dust and gas where new stars are born.
Emerging Tech

Robot assistants from Toyota and Panasonic gear up for the Tokyo Olympics

Japan plans to use the 2020 Olympics to showcase a range of its advanced technologies. Toyota and Panasonic are already getting in on the act, recently unveiling several robotic designs that they intend to deploy at the event.
Emerging Tech

A.I.-generated text is supercharging fake news. This is how we fight back

A new A.I. tool is reportedly able to spot passages of text written by algorithm. Here's why similar systems might prove essential in a world of fake news created by smart machines.