Lower body exoskeletons and exo-suits are already being used in some rehabilitation facilities and laboratories to improve walking ability in stroke patients, elderly and young people with cerebral palsy or other disabilities. But perhaps the most compelling and annoying science today is about exoskeletons for the rest of us, including young and healthy people. In this research area, scientists are developing exoskeletons to reduce the energy costs of running and walking, and to make these activities less tiring, more physiologically efficient, and possibly more enjoyable.
So far, the first results seem promising. In a series of studies conducted at Stanford University’s Biomechatronics Lab last year (and funded in part by Nike, Inc.), researchers found that college students were able to run about 15 percent more efficiently than normal on a treadmill when they wore a customizable prototype version of a lower leg exoskeleton. These exoskeletons feature a motorized, lightweight frame that straps around the runners’ shins and ankles and a carbon fiber rod that is inserted into the soles of the shoes. Together, these elements reduce the amount of force that runners’ leg muscles need to use to move them forward. The authors of the study estimate that we could run at least 10 percent faster on real paths and trails with the devices than on our own.
A slightly optimized device also increased the speed of young people walking, according to a separate experiment by the Stanford Laboratory published in April. In this study, students walked about 40 percent faster on average when wearing a powered exoskeleton prototype, while burning about 2 percent less energy.
In essence, exoskeleton technology could be thought of as “analogous to e-bikes,” but for walking, not pedaling, said Steven Collins, professor of mechanical engineering at Stanford and senior author of the new studies. By reducing the amount of exercise, the powered machines could theoretically encourage us to move around more, perhaps commuting on foot, hanging out or dropping by with naturally faster spouses or friends, and reaching places that might otherwise seem dauntingly hilly or far away.
They might even allow our muscles to power our cell phones, according to one of the more surprising new exoskeleton studies. In this experiment, published in Science in May, healthy young volunteers from Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario wore an exoskeleton that contained a backpack with a small generator attached to cables that ran to their ankles.