Tag Archives: exoskeleton

A system of actuation wires attached to the back of the exosuit provides assistive force to the hip joint during running. Credit: The Wyss Institute at Harvard University

Light-weight tethered exoskeleton helps you run faster and longer

An innovative soft exosuit developed at Harvard University greatly reduces the metabolic cost of running by 5.4%. Amateur or professional athletes alike could greatly improve their performance by using this assistive technology. For instance, a 26.2-mile marathon would feel like running a 24.9-mile one or a running pace of 9:14 minutes/mile could be improved to 8:49 minutes/mile. All the hard work is made by the suit so you need no extra training. The researchers who invented and tested the suit say it could prove ideal for athletes looking to augment their performance or for those recovering from an injury. It’s not the very portable, not yet at least — the exosuit is tethered and use is confined to a treadmill for now.

A system of actuation wires attached to the back of the exosuit provides assistive force to the hip joint during running. Credit: The Wyss Institute at Harvard University

A system of actuation wires attached to the back of the exosuit provides assistive force to the hip joint during running. Credit: The Wyss Institute at Harvard University

The exosuit is textile-based and lightweight ensuring it moves along with the body. It’s made of flexible wires that connect the fabric anchored to the back of the thigh and waist belt to an external actuation unit.

When a subject runs on a treadmill wearing the tethered suit, the actuator unit pulls the wires as if it were a second pair of hip extensor muscles.

As it stands today, the system isn't portable yet. Credit: The Wyss Institute at Harvard University.

As it stands today, the system isn’t portable yet. Credit: The Wyss Institute at Harvard University.

The researchers at Wyss Institute and John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) at Harvard University were interested which of two different ‘assistance profiles’ was better, i.e. which had the least metabolic cost. One of the modes is based on human biology and applies force starting at the point of maximum hip extension as observed in normal running. The other mode is based on simulations previously made by a group from Stanford University which found applying force slightly later in the running stride could be more optimal.

Strikingly, it was this second, ‘unnatural’ model that provided the best performance. Compared to the biology-based profile, the simulation-based profile reduced metabolic cost by a factor of two.

“Our work at the Wyss is biologically inspired and, as shown by Conor’s team’s advance, sometimes we learn that a conventional biological view of a mechanism is not really how living systems work; we need to place individual components — in this case, a human hip joint — in context of the living whole. When we do this right, transformative new technologies emerge,” says the Wyss’ Founding Director Donald Ingber, in a statement. “Studies like this are also a great example of the power of thinking beyond the limitations that Nature has handed us and asking, ‘Can we do better?'”

When the team analyzed what happens when a subject’s hip joints were being assisted by the exoskeleton’s actuating wires, the researchers found that the simulation-based profile also acted on other muscles and components of the limbs. The profile affected the knee extension, as well as the forces between the foot and the ground, whereas the biology-based profile did not.

“The biological profile only takes into account the amount of torque in the hip joint, but the human body is not a series of independently acting parts — it’s full of muscles that act on multiple joints to coordinate movement,” said Postdoctoral Fellow Giuk Lee in a statement. “Applying force to the hip affects the whole body system, and we need to consider that in order to give the best assistance.”

 

Only two actuation profiles were studied which means there’s a good chance the cost of running can be further reduced with some tweaks. The real innovation, however, would be to make all of this system portable. An untethered system would have to integrate all of the wires, actuator units, and power in an exoskeleton that’s light and whose benefit offsets the cost of wearing it. But that’s ‘beyond the horizon’ for now, Lee says.

It might be worth noting that this study was partially funded by the Department of Defense’s DARPA Warrior Web program. Maybe one day the nation’s soldiers will be equipped with a portable version of this exosuit which will help them run faster and longer on the battlefield.

Scientific Reference: G. Lee et al. Reducing the metabolic cost of running with a tethered soft exosuit. Science Robotics, May 2017 DOI: 10.1126/scirobotics.aan6708

Muscle-like fabric could turn regular clothes into ‘Superman suits’

What a textile exoskeleton might look like. The muscle-like fibers made by Swedish researchers is shown here in black. Credit: Thor Balkhed/Linköping University

These muscle-like textiles made from cellulose yarn can respond to low-voltage electricity to contract just like actual muscle fibers. Clothing made from such a material could help those with disabilities enhance their mobility by providing a far more light-weight alternative to cumbersome exoskeletons. It could also help otherwise healthy people who have physically intensive jobs lessen their load.

“Like a muscle, the actuation is triggered by an electrical potential, driven by a chemical reaction, and operated in an electrolyte,” says study author Edwin Jager, an applied physicist at Linköping University, Sweden.

The fabric was first knitted and woven so it matched the structure of real muscle. It was then bathed in an electroactive solution to make it responsive to electricity. This rather simple recipe allows the fabric to exhibit properties similar to biological muscle, as reported in Science Advances.

The knitted textile offers flexibility while the woven version can exert more force since, like real muscle, woven fibers are coupled in parallel.

“In this case, the extension of the fabric is the same as that of the individual threads. But what happens is that the force developed is much higher when the threads are connected in parallel in the weave,” said Nils-Krister Persson of the Swedish School of Textiles at the University of Borås for ResearchGate.

The strong and flexible textile could be sewn into parts of clothing, like the sleeve tights, to made movement easier, i.e. use less energy. Right now, some people with motor disabilities use exoskeletons powered by motors or pressurized air to move about but these can cost $50,000 onward.

“Enormous and impressive advances have been made in the development of exoskeletons, which now enable people with disabilities to walk again. But the existing technology looks like rigid robotic suits. It is our dream to create exoskeletons that are similar to items of clothing, such as “running tights” that you can wear under your normal clothes. Such device could make it easier for older persons and those with impaired mobility to walk,” Jager said in a statement for the press.

That’s not to say that the muscle-like fiber made by the Swedish researchers can come close to exoskeleton practicality. The fiber was used to move a LEGO lever and lift a two-gram weight when an electrical current was passed through it but you’d need to do far more than that for it to be functional. There are also a couple of other limitations that right now make the fiber rather impractical, like the fact that it requires an electrolyte to actuate the artificial muscles. The researchers hope to make it work using only air instead.

Even so, this is some exciting research and might one day develop into a much more promising technology.

“I hope that this work will inspire others to look into the possibilities of textile technology,” says Jager. “My collaborators have taught me that textiles, ubiquitous as they are, can truly be high-tech technology.”

New exoskeleton helps disabled people get back on their feet

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: the future is here.

Image via EFLP.

Stand up, take a few steps, walk around, then sit back down. For most of us, those things are taken for granted. We can move around, we can use our bodies, it’s just something we do every day – without questioning or thinking about it. But for millions of people suffering from paraplegia, that’s virtually impossible. That may change in the future, thanks to technology.

Researchers working at the École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne in Swtizerland have developed a novel exoskeleton called TWIICE. TWIICE squared off with other exoskeletons at the 2016 Cybathlon – the first competition for disabled athletes who use various assistive technologies. The device was built from light composite materials and weighs only 14 kilos – yet is able to support the user’s entire weight. It features buttons for fast walking, slow walking, climbing stairs and so on.

“Our goal is to make the vertical world accessible to handicapped people,” said Mohamed Bouri, a group leader at the LSRO and the project supervisor. “In several years, it will undoubtedly be common to see people in exoskeletons standing up and walking around outside or in stores.”

However, the project isn’t yet suitable for the general population. The exoskeleton is still pretty difficult to control and requires experience and great concentration.

“At this point, the pilot needs a lot of strength, stability and concentration to handle it, since each step is controlled manually,” said Jemina Fasola, a PhD student in bioengineering who was involved in the project.

The reason – or one of the reasons – why it’s so hard to maneuver is because the design is built to fit all body types.

“We came up with a very flexible production method,” said Tristan Vouga, a PhD student in microengineering and the person behind the concept. “It makes it easy to produce exoskeletons that can fit different body types and work with different handicaps.”

If they can get it to work easily, and this is a big if, we’re gonna be really close to real-life cyborgs, aiding the lives of millions of people.

Amber reveals ancient insect that was literally scared out of its skin

Image credits George Poinar, Jr./Oregon State University

Image credits George Poinar, Jr./Oregon State University

It’s not uncommon for insects, plants and various other life forms to become trapped in amber deposits, but a recent discovery reveals a bit of a different story – a fifty-million-year-old exoskeleton of an ancient insect that was literally scared out of its skin.

The Baltic amber was retrieved from the coast of the Baltic Sea in Scandinavia and comes from a time when dinosaurs had recently died out and mammals were increasing in their diversity.

In addition to holding an insect exoskeleton, which is comparable to a modern-day “walking stick,” the amber also contains the first mushroom ever discovered in Baltic amber and a piece of mammalian hair. Taken together, these three remnants paint a picture of an ancient encounter between an insect and a rodent.

“From what we can see in this fossil, a tiny mushroom was bitten off, probably by a rodent, at the base of a tree,” said George Poinar, Jr., a researcher in in the College of Science at Oregon State University and author of the study. “An insect, similar to a walking stick, was probably also trying to feed on the mushroom. It appears to have immediately jumped out of its skin and escaped, just as tree sap flowed over the remaining exoskeleton and a hair left behind by the fleeing rodent.”

The ancient insect exoskeleton preserved in the amber was revealed to be a member of the Phasmatodea order, which are also referred to as stick insects due to their resemblance to sticks and leaves.

“It would have shed its skin repeatedly before reaching adulthood, in a short lifespan of a couple months,” Poinar said. “In this case, the ability to quickly get out of its skin, along with being smart enough to see a problem coming, saved its life.”

The presence of fine filaments in the exoskeleton suggest that the skin was extremely fresh when it was engulfed by the amber, supporting the idea that the insect jumped out of its skin just in the knick of time.

Journal Reference: A gilled mushroom, Gerontomyces lepidotus gen. et sp. nov. (Basidiomycota: Agaricales), in Baltic amber. 22 June 2016. 10.1016/j.funbio.2016.06.008

Designed for astronauts, the RoboHand can double your hand’s strength — and soon, it will be available on Earth

The RoboGlove, a NASA and General Motors joint design intended to help astronauts perform heavy duty repairs, will become available on Earth. The technology has been licensed to Sweedish medical technology firm Bioservo Technologies.

GM principal engineer for robotics Marty Linn wearing the RoboGlove shakes hands with Robonaut 2.
Image credits NASA/GM

This glove is the product of a nine-year collaboration between GM and NASA, who partnered for the Robonaut 2 project — a humanoid robot meant to assist ISS astronauts with maintenance and repair works, which was launched in 2011. The technology that went into creating the robot’s hands, designed to be as dextrous and versatile as a human’s hands, were further developed into the RoboGlove.

This wearable tool is equipped with a network of pressure sensors that can detect when the user is holding an object and a series of actuators and synthetic tendons to apply extra grip.

Gif via youtube

“An astronaut working in a pressurized suit outside the space station or an assembly operator in a factory might need to use 15 to 20 pounds of force to hold a tool during an operation,” said NASA in 2012 while the glove was still ion development. “But with the robotic glove they might need to apply only five to 10 pounds of force. The roboglove halves the amount of force needed”

The device is powered by a battery pack worn on the user’s belt and lends itself well to industries where workers have to put in sustained effort over long periods of time — such as assembly workers, manual laborers, and even surgeons.

Gif via youtube

Kurt Wiese, vice president of General Motors Global Manufacturing Engineering, said in a news release:

“The successor to RoboGlove can reduce the amount of force that a worker needs to exert when operating a tool for an extended time or with repetitive motions.”

No timeframe for the glove’s deployment has been given yet, but this gripping technology is joining a growing number of products designed to make workers’ activities safer and more efficient. Companies such as Hyundai, BMW, and Panasonic have all announced they’re working on exoskeleton prototypes aimed at helping manufacturing workers.

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Pheonix exoskeleton wants to make wheelchairs obsolete

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Image: SuitX

“Unless you’ve been in a wheelchair, it’s very difficult to see all the various small details – what a person would actually need within an exoframe,” said one Phoenix exoskeleton user. Developed by California robotics startup SuitX, this exoskeleton is the lightest on the market today. It’s aim is to eventually become so cheap, durable and practical that it will make the wheelchair obsolete and the lives of millions of paraplegics a lot less daunting.

Like any other exoskeleton, the Phoenix is a robotic frame that augments and enhances the wearer’s movements. Ekso suits, for instance, were developed for DARPA to help soldiers carry more weight. Similarly, the Berkeley Lower Extremity Exoskeleton (BLEEX) is a self-powered exoskeleton for strength and endurance enhancement of humans that is ergonomic, highly maneuverable, mechanically robust, lightweight and durable. While there are also many exoskeleton aimed to help those paralyzed from the waist down walk again on their own (robot-assisted) feet, the Phoenix shines on its own.

Phoenix exoskeleton

Image: SuitX

Phoenix only weights 27 pounds, or half as much as the closest competitor. To power the movements, a motor was placed on each hip while simple hinges lock the knees instead of powered actuators. The user needs to use crutches to stabilize the system, which might seem like the a drag — for now, the other alternative is a wheelchair.

phoenix exoskeleton

The batteries can last for four hours of continuous walking or eight of intermittent use.

“We started SuitX out of our passion to develop low-cost consumer bionic products to improve the quality of life for people around the world,” creator Dr. Homayoon Kazerooni said in a statement. “We have tackled problems associated with design, human machine interface (HMI), actuation, power management, and control during the development of our medical exoskeletons. We designed the Phoenix to be accessible and versatile so that it can be used by children.”

Phoenix is also very versatile thanks to its modular design. While other exoskeletons are geared towards people with disabilities in both legs, SuitX’s Pheonix can be tailored for a tall person who only needs assistance for one knee, for instance. Gait parameters can be fine tuned via a smartphone app.

The exoskeleton will go on sale next month for $40,000. At this price, seems like wheelchair manufacturers won’t go bankrupt too soon. It’s still a lot cheaper than other options (ranging from $70,000-$100,000) and it might get a lot cheaper as people order more, or if there’s interest to subsidize the machinery.

“My idea and philosophy is less is more,” Kazerooni told Fast Company. “We want to give a minimal amount to the user to be independent. We’re not saying this is a complete [mobility] machine, but if we come up with something that’s robust and simple—walks, stops, sits, and stands—that’s hugely enabling!”

University postgraduate student Hiromasa Hara displays the Hybrid Assistive Limb climbing model, a robot suit designed to carry a person.

Iron Man-like exoskeleton enables paralyzed Japanese man to visit France

Seiji Uchida is 49 years old and for the past 28 years he’s been left paralyzed from the waist down and to one of his arms after a dreadful car accident. He’s never lost hope of walking on his own two feet ever since, though, and now thanks to the marvels of Japanese robotics, his dream of his visiting  the medieval French World Heritage site of Mont Saint Michel will become true.

Called the Hybrid Assistive Limb or HAL, the Japanese robot-suit which will assist Uchida looks like something that’s been manufactured straight of an Iron Man comic strip design. Not only does it look incredibly awesome, in lack of a better term, but more importantly the exoskeleton will help carry Uchida up the hill of Mont Saint Michel which, interestingly, inspired Minas Tirith in Lords of the Rings.

“Right now, I cannot stand on my own feet without help,” said Uchida at Tokyo’s Narita airport before his departure to France.

“But I will never give up on my hope of someday walking on my own feet, no matter how many years it would take.”

Battery-powered, HAL can allow for weights of up to 80 kilograms to be carried by the wearer – more than enough for Uchida, who weighs 45 kilograms. The suit does this by catching very weak biosignals which can be detected on the surface of the skin though its sensor. Based on these signals, the power unit is controlled to move the joint unitedly with the wearer’s muscle movement, enabling to support the wearer’s daily activities.

 

This won’t be Uchida’s first European adventure. In 2006, he, with a support team used an earlier version of the suit in an unsuccessful attempt to conquer the 13,661-foot Breithorn peak in Switzerland. Uchida said he wants to visit the rocky tidal island of Mont Saint Michel, where a steep and narrow trail leads to an abbey and former fortress, to “prove that it is possible for disabled people to visit the world’s historic sites without relying on facilities like elevators,” he said.

“HAL” is expected to be applied in various fields such as rehabilitation support and physical training support in medical field, ADL support for disabled people, heavy labour support at factories, and rescue support at disaster sites, as well as in the entertainment field.

 

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