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New lightweight robot exosuit makes walking and running a whole lot easier

Researchers at South Korea’s Chung-Ang University have developed a new lightweight, portable robotic suit that increases running and walking performance without being excessively bulky. The suit could be a game-changer for people with a variety of restricted mobility issues, including those with impaired knee functions and above-knee amputees. It could also be useful for people performing strenuous physical work.

“We show that a portable exosuit that assists hip extension can reduce the metabolic rate of treadmill walking at 1.5 meters per second by 9.3% and that of running at 2.5 meters per second by 4.0% compared with locomotion without the exosuit,” the researchers write in an abstract describing the suit.

There are two big challenges this particular lightweight exosuit solves. One is that it weighs considerably less than some of the other alternative robot exosuits that have been developed. Consisting of a fabric vest, belt, and thigh wraps, the 5 kg suit is not much heavier or cumbersome than the clothes people wear in day-to-day life. The components are connected by wires, and fitted with batteries and a motor-like device to serve as an actuator.

Secondly, the exosuit can switch its assistance between walking and running gaits. While that might sound straightforward, both types of locomotion involve fundamentally different biomechanics. That means that being able to switch between them is not easy. The researchers working on the project developed a special gait-analysis algorithm which is able to correctly identify walking and running gaits more than 99.98% of the time. It then adjusts the assistive suit accordingly.

“We are expecting that this ‘wearable robot’ will have many uses, such as in aiding rehabilitation training for senior patients and enhancing the work efficiency of soldiers or firemen,” Professor Giuk Lee, one of the lead researchers on the project, said in a statement. “In the long term, we envision this exosuit as hanging in a closet all the time, just like the clothes we wear every day.”

There’s no word when, or if, this technology might be commercialized. However, given that robot exosuits are already being deployed both in and out of the workplace, it wouldn’t be at all surprising to see some of these insights rolled out in the form of a commercial product at some point.

A paper describing the work, titled “Reducing the metabolic rate of walking and running with a versatile, portable exosuit,” was recently published in the journal Science.

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