Robotics can now give you a leg up -- literally

Scientists say exoskeleton would feel like removing 10 pounds while walking

It sounds easy enough for the average healthy person, but could it be made easier for people who have to do a lot of it - like nurses, soldiers, police officers or postal workers?

Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) think they can make walking more efficient, enabling a nurse, for instance, to feel less tired and move better throughout a long, hectic day.

Steve Collins, a mechanical engineer, roboticist and professor at CMU, said the technology they're working on could reduce the energy people use to walk by 7%.

Although that doesn't sound like much, Collins noted that it would be like taking off a 10-pound backpack when you're walking around.

"That might not seem like a lot, but it's meaningful to people," Collins said. "From a basic science perspective, people are already really well tuned to walking. We've been bipeds for over 7 million years. We're really well trained at it over our lifetimes. Making any improvement at all was really challenging. Many in our field said it could not be done."

Collins and his collaborator, Greg Sawicki, at North Carolina State University, are making walking easier by creating a lightweight, unpowered, wearable exoskeleton that fits over the lower leg, cupping the heel and foot. Much like a knee-high boot, the exoskeleton uses a spring that mimics a human Achilles' tendon and a clutch that acts like calf muscles, Collins explained. The gain in walking efficiency comes from the fact that the spring and clutch aren't fueled by human energy, like muscles and tendons.

The exoskeleton lessens the load on the user's calf muscles, while the spring is designed to store and release elastic energy. The clutch releases and engages the spring.

"It reduces the tension in your calf muscles so it reduces the energy you expend to maintain that force," he said. "We can make it customizable with little low-powered sensors and by adjusting the timing of the clutch and the stiffness of the spring. Future versions would measure your walking speed to change the stiffness of the clutch and the timing. It would be the same if you're going up and down stairs or running."

Researchers from various universities and institutions have been working on building exoskeletons to help soldiers be more agile and strong, or to help the disabled to walk again.

Scientists, for instance, have been working on developing a robotic exoskeleton that looks and acts a bit like an Iron Man suit for the U.S. military.

The Tactical Assault Light Operator Suit, or TALOS, is being designed to feed soldiers on the battlefield real-time information, while making them stronger, giving them more stamina and even healing their wounds.

In February, scientists at the University of Bristol in the United Kingdom announced that they are working on a technology that is not quite an exoskeleton but robotic pants. With built-in artificial muscles, the soft robotic clothing is designed to give the disabled or elderly extra strength and balance.

Researchers at CMU and North Carolina State University are now aiming their exoskeleton - named the walking assist clutch - at people without disabilities. However, Collins said they could eventually apply similar techniques to people with disabilities.

"Someday soon, we may have simple, lightweight and relatively inexpensive exoskeletons to help us get around -- especially if we've been slowed down by injury or aging," he said. "We're a couple of years away right now. The advancements needed are relatively modest. It's more about making it more form-fitting and adding a little control."

Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

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