Harvard’s soft exoskeleton

By | January 25, 2017

It was 2009-2010 when exoskeletons exited science fiction and entered the mainstream as several companies and research labs revealed their state-of-the-art designs (see Rex Bionics, Lockheed Martin, and Honda’s exoskeletons). These wearable robots that assist a person to walk promise improved mobility for many people in need such as the handicapped and the elderly. Exoskeletons will also enable able-bodied people to perform physical tasks such as lifting heavy weights with ease as well as walking and running faster and for longer distances.

Development for exoskeletons has not seized during the past 7 years but, even though, some products have made it to market, I’d say that technology development has stalled and the media has, most certainly, lost interest. The truth is that the existing designs are bulky and power hungry so not particularly useful for any applications outside the military and even then only for specific tasks in well controlled environments.

Researchers at Harvard’s Biodesign Lab are working on developing a soft exoskeleton (or exosuit as they prefer to call it) that overcomes the above limitations. As explained on their website,

As compared to a traditional exoskeleton, these systems have several advantages: the wearer’s joints are unconstrained by external rigid structures, and the worn part of the suit is extremely light. These properties minimize the suit’s unintentional interference with the body’s natural biomechanics and allow for more synergistic interaction with the wearer.

This is exciting work in the right direction. The development of practical exoskeletons or exosuits will be of great social impact improving the quality of life for millions of people. According to the United States Census Bureau, in the report covering the period 2008-2012, 15.7 million elderly Americans had difficulty walking or climbing (source).

The Harvard team has also published a video with the principle investigators discussing their work including their current progress and ambitious goals. You can watch it below.