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DARPA awards $2.9 million to Harvard to develop 'soft' robotic exoskeleton

Robotic exoskeleton

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(NaturalNews) The Pentagon's technology research branch has awarded $2.9 million to Harvard University researchers working to develop an exoskeleton soft and pliable enough to be worn underneath a soldier's clothing.

Researchers had actually been working on the device, dubbed the "Soft Exosuit," for several years before receiving a grant from the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA). Rather than dramatically increasing soldiers' physical capabilities, the suit is designed to reduce strain on the body, thereby helping users conserve energy, travel farther and work longer before needing to rest.

"We're trying to take an entirely new approach to how we design and fabricate wearable robots," project leader Conor J. Walsh said.

Smart sensors adjust to muscle movements

To date, most exoskeleton research has focused on powerful machines constructed from metal. In contrast, the Soft Exosuit is designed to support rather than supplant the body's normal functions.

"We wanted to make sure we were not working against the body, but working with the body," said electrical engineering concentrator Ishan Catterjee.

"When you [think] about something you wear, you think of something that keeps you warm or something fashionable," Catterjee said. "But these textiles actually have a key function that's critical to the robot's operation. We begin with the question: 'Can you make a robot soft enough and apply enough support that it has a positive effect on a person's mobility?'"

To design the suit, the researchers studied human motion and considered which muscles stood to benefit the most from added force and support. Thus far, the prototype consists of a device that looks like a climber's safety harness made of mesh and spandex, with electric cables that run down the user's legs. Batteries and motors have been affixed to the waist to minimize their effect on the natural movement of the joints.

"Exoskeletons often fail to allow the wearer to perform his or her natural joint movements, are generally heavy, and can hence cause fatigue," the designers said. "[The Soft Exosuit] can be significantly lighter than an exoskeleton since it does not contain a rigid structure. It also provides minimal restrictions to the wearer's motions, avoiding problems relating to joint misalignment."

A tiny computer at the top of the device collects and analyzes data on the movement of the body, automatically adjusting the contribution of the cables to match the user's speed and movements.

Real-world limitations

The researchers hope that the Soft Exosuit could also be adapted to civilian medical applications, such as assisting those who have trouble walking. They are seeking funding and partnership from medical device companies.

"A surprisingly large number of the U.S. population finds it very hard to walk," Walsh said. "Those people are restricted to their homes, and their healthcare deteriorates rapidly."

The researchers also hope that advances in battery technology will allow them to eventually make the suit even lighter.

"Energy storage is still a challenge," Walsh said, noting that, while a person can walk for 3.5 miles using the energy contained in a single cookie, it takes a battery weighing 10 times that much to enable an electric bicycle to move the same distance.

The Soft Exosuit cannot do certain things that other, bulkier robotic exoskeletons are capable of. For example, it cannot enable paralyzed people to walk, as it relies on the body's own muscles. Nor can it can increase a person's lifting capacity, which requires a rigid skeleton containing motors and hydraulics.

To date, no exoskeleton is capable of the feats seen in the Iron Man movies. Scientists believe that, just like in the movies, this would require developing a power source radically different from any yet known.







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