Some rehabilitation centers and labs are already using lower body exoskeletons and exosuits to improve walking ability in stroke patients, the elderly and young people with cerebral palsy or other disabilities. But perhaps the most tantalizing and irritating current science concerns exoskeletons for the rest of us, including people who are young and healthy. In this area of research, scientists are developing exoskeletons to lower the energy costs of running and walking, making these activities less tiring, physiologically more efficient and potentially more enjoyable.
So far the first results seem promising. In a series of studies conducted last year at Stanford University’s Biomechatronics Lab (and funded in part by Nike, Inc.), researchers found that students could run about 15 percent more efficiently than normal on a treadmill when they wore a customizable prototype version of a exoskeleton of the lower leg. These exoskeletons have a motor-driven lightweight frame strapped around the runners’ shins and ankles and a carbon fiber rod inserted into the soles of their shoes. Together, these elements reduce the amount of force runners’ leg muscles must produce to propel them. On real trails and trails, the devices could allow us to run at least 10 percent faster than alone, the study authors estimate.
A slightly modified device also increased young people’s speed when walking, according to a separate Stanford lab experiment, published in April. In that study, students walked about 40 percent faster on average when wearing a powered exoskeleton prototype, while burning about 2 percent less energy.
Essentially, the exoskeleton technology could be thought of as “analogous to e-bikes,” but for strides, not pedaling, said Steven Collins, a professor of mechanical engineering at Stanford and senior author of the new studies. By reducing the effort required to move, the powered machines could theoretically encourage us to move more, perhaps commute on foot, hang out with or of course pass faster spouses or friends, and reach places that would otherwise be dauntingly hilly or far. would seem gone.
They could even enable our muscles to power our cellphones, according to one of the most surprising of the new exoskeleton studies. In that experiment, published in Science in May, healthy young volunteers from Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, wore an exoskeleton with a backpack containing a small generator attached to cables that ran up to their ankles.