When most people envision an exosuit, they picture someone strapped into a rigid metal frame lifting extremely heavy objects. Recently, scientists at Harvard's Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering developed a more practical, less clunky alternative.
Scientists at Harvard University have designed a new type of flexible fabric exoskeleton that could prove far more practical than traditional ones made with metal frames and strong motors. The artificial attachment, dubbed the "Soft Exosuit", benefits its wearer by manipulating his or her musculature to reduce injuries, improve stamina, and enhance balance instead of simply increasing lifting capacity.
During development, researchers meticulously studied how people walk and determined which muscles would best benefit from the added forces of the Soft Exosuit. When they achieved a better understanding of the biomechanics involved, the team chose to go with a network of cables to transmit forces to the joints. The exosuit is attached with a network of fabric straps, while batteries and motors are mounted at the waist to prevent any rigid components from interfering with natural joint movement.
Since the exoskeleton conforms to the natural movements of the wearer, the subject does not have to manually control how the forces are applied or stick to a certain pace when walking with the Soft Exosuit activated. A network of strain sensors are integrated throughout the straps that transmit data to the on-board microcomputer- which in turn allow it to interpret and apply supportive force with the cables. The machine could even be worn under clothing if the batteries and motors were repositioned or scaled down.
The project is being funded by DARPA as part of the Warrior Web program that aims to reduce musculoskeletal injuries for members of the armed forces. Harvard also anticipates a civilian application for their technology, as those suffering from physical impairment could greatly benefit from the less expensive and considerably more comfortable Soft Exosuit rather than metal exoskeletons.