Soft Exosuit Helps Soldiers and Rescue Workers Traverse Difficult Terrain
Meghan Brown posted on September 19, 2018 |

Robotic exosuits are a hot tech topic, and a popular addition to sci-fi movies and television shows.  While there’s a lot of great progress happening, most robotic mobility aides and exosuits are still bulky with rigid components and controls.

A team of engineering researchers at Harvard see a different future, with smart textile-based soft robotic exosuits that could be worn by soldiers, firefighters and emergency search and rescue workers to help them traverse difficult terrain and arrive fresh at their destinations so that they can perform their respective tasks more effectively. These exosuits could also become a powerful means to enhance mobility and quality of life for people suffering from neurodegenerative disorders and for the elderly.

The research team is led by Conor Walsh and is a collaboration between Harvard’s John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) and the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering.  The team has been at the forefront of developing different soft wearable robotic devices that support mobility by applying mechanical forces to critical joints of the body, including at the ankle or hip joints—or both, in the case of a multi-joint soft exosuit. Because of its potential for relieving overburdened soldiers in the field, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) funded the team’s efforts as part of its former Warrior Web program.

While the researchers have demonstrated that lab-based versions of soft exosuits can provide clear benefits to wearers, allowing them to spend less energy while walking and running, there remains a need for fully wearable exosuits that are suitable for use in the real world.

Now, in a study reported in the proceedings of the 2018 IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation (ICRA), the team presented their latest generation of a mobile multi-joint exosuit, which has been improved on all fronts and tested in the field through long marches over uneven terrain. Using the same exosuit in a second study published in the Journal of NeuroEngineering and Rehabilitation (JNER), the researchers developed an automatic tuning method to customize its assistance based on how an individual’s body is responding to it, and demonstrated significant energy savings.

The multi-joint soft exosuit consists of textile apparel components work at the waist, thighs and calves that guide mechanical forces from an optimized mobile actuation system attached to a rucksack via cables to the ankle and hip joints.  In addition, a new tuning method helps personalize the exosuit’s effects to wearers’ specific gaits. (Image courtesy of Harvard Biodesign Lab.)

The multi-joint soft exosuit consists of textile apparel components work at the waist, thighs and calves that guide mechanical forces from an optimized mobile actuation system attached to a rucksack via cables to the ankle and hip joints. In addition, a new tuning method helps personalize the exosuit’s effects to wearers’ specific gaits. (Image courtesy of Harvard Biodesign Lab.)

The multi-joint soft exosuit consists of textile apparel components worn at the waist, thighs, and calves. Through an optimized mobile actuation system worn near the waist and integrated into a military rucksack, mechanical forces are transmitted via cables that are guided through the exosuit’s soft components to ankle and hip joints. This way, the exosuit adds power to the ankles and hips to assist with leg movements during the walking cycle.

“We have updated all components in this new version of the multi-joint soft exosuit: the apparel is more user-friendly, easy to put on and accommodating to different body shapes; the actuation is more robust, lighter, quieter and smaller; and the control system allows us to apply forces to hips and ankles more robustly and consistently,” said David Perry, a co-author of the ICRA study and a staff engineer on Walsh’s team. As part of the DARPA program, the exosuit was field-tested in Aberdeen, MD, in collaboration with the Army Research Labs, where soldiers walked through a 12-mile cross-country course.

“We previously demonstrated that it is possible to use online optimization methods that by quantifying energy savings in the lab automatically individualize control parameters across different wearers. However, we needed a means to tune control parameters quickly and efficiently to the different gaits of soldiers at the Army outside a laboratory,” said Walsh, the John L. Loeb Associate Professor of Engineering and Applied Sciences at SEAS, Core Faculty member of the Wyss Institute, and Founder of the Harvard Biodesign Lab.

In the JNER study, the team presented a suitable new tuning method that uses exosuit sensors to optimize the positive power delivered at the ankle joints. When a wearer begins walking, the system measures the power and gradually adjusts controller parameters until it finds those that maximize the exosuit’s effects based on the wearer’s individual gait mechanics. The method can be used as a proxy measure for elaborate energy measurements.

“We evaluated the metabolic parameters in the seven study participants wearing exosuits that underwent the tuning process and found that the method reduced the metabolic cost of walking by about 14.8% compared to walking without the device and by about 22% compared to walking with the device unpowered,” said Sangjun Lee, the first author of both studies and a graduate student with Walsh at SEAS.

“These studies represent the exciting culmination of our DARPA-funded efforts. We are now continuing to optimize the technology for specific uses in the Army where dynamic movements are important; and we are exploring it for assisting workers in factories performing strenuous physical tasks,” said Walsh.

“In addition, the field has recognized there is still a lot to understand on the basic science of co-adaptation of humans and wearable robots. Future co-optimization strategies and new training approaches could help further enhance individualization effects and enable wearers that initially respond poorly to exosuits to adapt to them as well and benefit from their assistance”.


For more on exoskeleton robotics, check out these stories:

Could Robotic Exoskeletons Achieve Widescale Use by 2022?

Robotic Exoskeleton and Virtual Reality Help Paraplegics to Walk

3D Printed AngelLegs Give the Miracle of Mobility

Ford Equips Assembly Workers with Exoskeletons



Source: Harvard Newsroom


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