Wearable Robots

A team of roboticists, engineers, biochemical experts, and apparel designers, have teamed up to make a light, functional “exosuit.” this wearable technology could help those with limited mobility traverse difficult terrain. Joining Hari Sreenivasan via google hangout is Sangjun lee, mechanical engineering graduate student at Harvard and co-author of the study.

TRANSCRIPT

Many of us grew up watching our favorite superheros don more than just capes.

Technologically advanced supersuits enhanced these superheros' abilities like in Marvel's Black Panther or DC Comic's The Flash.

What would it take to make those suits part of our reality?

A team of roboticists, engineers, biochemical experts and apparel designers have teamed up to make a light, functional exosuit.

This wearable technology could help firefighters, military and those with limited mobility traverse difficult terrain.

Joining me now via Google Hangout is Sangjun Lee, a mechanical engineer and graduate student at Harvard and coauthor of the study.

This is the stuff of science fiction.

This is... Are you in this field because you wanted to build some cool Iron Man outfit?

Oh, yeah.

I really like the superhero movies.

Yeah, probably that's why I kind of dreamed about this type of thing.

And so, you know, where... Let's move away from kind of superhero to ordinary humans.

How are exosuits going to impact our lives?

Conventional widget-type exoskeletons are probably hard to be in the real world because they are really bulky and really large and hard to control in the real-world situations, so, as you can imagine by its name, our soft exosuits are kind of wearable robotic devices that are made of soft and compliant materials, so, simply speaking, just like the superhero suits, people can wear these type of devices, and then the suits can provide physical assistance to the wearer while the wearer is moving.

Okay.

So give me examples of types of physical assistance.

I mean, we have one video of someone who is walking on a treadmill, and what's happening to their hips?

Oh, so there are multiple different versions of the soft exosuit that we've been developing in the lab.

So, depending on the version, but basically the exosuit is helping the wearer while the wearer is walking.

So when they are pushing off the ground, the exosuit is helping the ankle joint to push off better, and also while they're moving their body center of mass forward, the exosuit is helping the hip joint to help their, like, to help to push their body forward more easily.

So this is essentially making our own walk more efficient and adding a little bit of strength to it because we're not wasting energy doing the stuff that we're doing inefficiently, right?

So could you imagine, then, something that is helping our frame, say, carry more material on our backs?

This is one of the Army-funded projects.

So we envision the Army's soldiers can carry heavy loads with this type of exosuit more easily and kind of further with a given amount of energy.

So in one of our recent testing... So last year, with the latest version of the exosuit, we spent more than 4 weeks with a group of actual infantry soldiers at the Army's Aberdeen Proving Ground.

So researchers there at Army Research Lab set up a really vigorous 12-mile cross-country course for the soldiers to hike with and without our exosuits and took a number of biomechanical and physiological measurements, including how much the metabolic energy they spent, and, finally, their testing showed that wearing the exosuit makes it easier to walk even in really highly constrained environment like this.

So what kind of efficiency are we talking about?

How much easier was it for a soldier to walk with the exosuit on, or how much... Maybe not easier, but how much less energy did they spend than when somebody did not have the suit on?

So in one of the recent work that we recently published in the paper, in that paper, so, as you can imagine, when a wearer wear this type of suit or this type of device, due to the weight or mass of the system, probably they will slightly increase their metabolic energy to walk.

So with one of our recent version of the exosuit, actually the energy cost of walking initially slightly increased by about 7 to 10 percent.

Because they were carrying the weight of the exosuit.

Actually, when the system is off, when the wearers are just carrying the weight of the system.

But when the system is turned on and the actuation is going on to the subject, actually they decreased their metabolic energy by 25-ish percent, which means the exosuit take the amount of energy that they actually increase by its own weight and further make the energy cost further down compared -- further down by 15 percent even compared with their natural walking without any exosuit.

The soldiers wearing these exosuits, they were spending 15 percent less energy even accounting for the weight of the suit that they were carrying at rest.

Exactly, yeah.

Are there workers, say, at a warehouse or an assembly line that might wear these things to be able to do different tasks without injuring their backs?

We are kind of expanding the application of the exosuit further down to other applications like medical application or the industrial application that you just mentioned.

So, for example, rescue workers or firefighters can use this type of similar system to help carry their gear up apartment stairs or out into the woods to fight a fire more easily, and we are also developing a version of exosuit that helps or kind of protects their back joints for the, like, assembly line workers or logistics workers so that the suit can prevent the back injuries for those type of workers.

How far away is this technology from being deployed in the real world?

We are already kind of starting to bring in this type of device into the real world.

So, for example, for the medical application exosuit, we have already kind of started to make a kind of commercial version of this, so we have partnered with a robotics company, and we are going through clinical trials to bring this type of medical-focused device to the market.

So give me an example.

When you say you've partnered with a robotics company in the medical application space, how is an exosuit going to help a patient?

What are they recovering from, or what would they need it for?

The exosuit has been developed for stroke survivors.

We measure the movement of the legs, both for the healthy side, for affected side, and help the affected side using the pattern of the unaffected side leg.

So how far away from having superstrength or superspeed with one of these suits?

We reason that, in the near future, this type of device can be in the real world to help people with disability or people that need more power, more strength to walk or for their work.

All right.

Sangjun Lee of Harvard, thanks so much for joining us.

Thank you.