Prototype Exoskeleton Fits On Lower Leg And Takes The Effort Out Of Walking

Let's face it, although as human beings we're built to walk, it can still be very, very tiring. Especially when there are loads of stairs and the elevator's broken. But thankfully science has come to the rescue with a carbon fiber exoskeleton that can augment your lower leg.

The exoskeleton, developed by scientists and engineers at Carnegie Mellon University, doesn't use electric or battery power, instead it relies on springs, hinges, and a clutch mounted on a carbon fiber frame.

According to a report the scientists published in Nature and referenced by The Guardian, people wearing the exoskeleton experienced a 4.6 to 9.8% reduction in energy expenditure when they tested the prototype on a treadmill. It's works out to an average of 7% which is the equivalent to losing 7lbs in body weight.

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Image credit: Carnegie Mellon University College of Engineering

There's still some way to go before it's released to the public, but you can imagine it being a great aide for the elderly and disabled. From The Guardian:

"Given that we have had 7 million years to evolve structures and traits for walking, and tens of thousands of hours of practice, we wanted to see if it was even possible to reduce the energy we use for walking," said Steven Collins, who designed and built the device at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.

Our muscles are fantastic in many ways, says Collins. They grow to meet our needs, heal themselves when injured, and run on organic fuels found all around us. But they are not particularly efficient. “When they produce positive work, they have a conversion efficiency of about 25%, which is about the same as an internal combustion engine in a car,” Collins said.

Engineers have dabbled for years with powered exoskeletons to help people walk, run or lift heavy objects. But they are heavy. They use motors or hydraulic systems, and have batteries that need constant recharging. “The cool thing about unpowered exoskeletons is that they are light, don’t need recharging, and could be really inexpensive,” said Collins.

The device he created, with colleagues at North Carolina State University, attaches around the shin and clips under the foot. Behind the calf, a spring, wire and clutch perform much the same job as the muscle and Achilles tendon. When the wearer’s foot touches the ground, the clutch locks the wire, making the spring stretch as the person walks forwards. When their foot lifts off, the clutch disengages and the spring relaxes, ready for the next step. “It takes the load off the calf muscles, so it reduces the amount of energy they expend in contractions,” Collins said.

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Image credit: Marc Hall, NC State University

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Image credit: Marc Hall, NC State University

h/t The Guardian