Soft Exosuit could overcome problems with heavier exoskeletons

A DARPA and Harvard lightweight Soft Exosuit overcomes the drawbacks of traditional, heavier exoskeleton systems, such as power-hungry battery packs and rigid components that can interfere with natural joint movement. It is made of soft, functional textiles woven into a piece of smart clothing that is pulled on like a pair of pants, and is intended to be worn under a soldier’s regular gear. The suit mimics the action of leg muscles and tendons when a person walks, and provides small but carefully timed assistance at the leg joints without restricting the wearer’s movement.

In a current prototype, a series of webbing straps around the lower half of the body contain a low-power microprocessor and a network of supple strain sensors. These act as the “brain” and “nervous system” of the Soft Exosuit, respectively, continuously monitoring various data signals, including suit tension, wearer position (walking, running, crouched), and more.

“Over just a couple of short years, Conor and his team will work to fundamentally shift the paradigm of what is possible in wearable robotics,” said Wyss Institute director Don Ingber. “Their work is a great example of the power of bringing together people from multiple disciplines with focused resources to translate what first seems like a dream into a product that could transform people’s lives.”

In addition to its military application, the team will collaborate with clinical partners to develop a medical version of the suit that could greatly benefit stroke victims, for example, whose gait often becomes slow and inefficient.

It could help with infantrymen who must walk for hours carrying as much as 100 pounds of gear. Walsh and his team are preparing for another test with the Army soon.

One of the aspects of the suit that make it innovative, Walsh said, is the way textiles are being used to create a “wearable robot.” That part of the project has piqued the interest of New Balance.

In this video, Harvard faculty member Conor Walsh and members of his team explain how the biologically inspired Soft Exosuit targets enhancing the mobility of healthy individuals and restoring the mobility of those with physical disabilities. Credit: Harvard’s Wyss Institute

“Looking at future applications and how they can assist the body from a performance standpoint both for the military service member and our elite athletes is something that is intriguing,” said Portia Blunt, apparel innovation manager for New Balance.

Walsh said something like the exosuit could be available to consumers sooner than many expect.

“You could imagine that within two years we’ll definitely have a much more refined system,” he said. “The technology will enable us.”