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In the focus of research: wearable soft exosuits and exoskeletons

By Seth Quartey. PhD | October 16, 2014

Whether it’s a stroke, an amputated leg or arm, a spinal-cord injury the extra strength to do some real heavy lifting, or that additional mobility in old age, it is likely that wearable Soft Exosuits and Exoskeletons could relieve these physical or neurological disorders, thus improving the walking and lifting efficiency of the wearer. While soft Exosuits use portable, wearable bio-designed elastic materials to assist mobility and increase power, exoskeletons are worn parallel to the human anatomy to enhance strength and mobility. Robotics laboratories at Harvard University, the University of Université Libre de Bruxelles (ULB), UC Santa Cruz, and Salford University have taken on the challenging task to design such devices to improve walking and lifting abilities where they are needed.

Soft Exosuit by Harvard Biodesign Lab

Soft Exosuits was designed at the Harvard Biodesign Lab by Prof. Conor Walsh and his team of researchers as part of a muscle assistive device to augment and restore human performance. What makes the wearable exosuit so fascinating for the user is that it combines the typical robotic design and control principles with active soft materials to help wearers such as firefighters, paramedics, farmers and others perform physically challenging tasks. The long term goal, according to Prof. Walsh is to “develop fully portable, wearable robots to assist the disabled and able-bodied and further the scientific understanding of how humans interact with such machines.”

The Sensoric Arm Master (SAM), a portable, and attachable wearable arm is under development in the Active Structures Laboratory of the Université Libre de Bruxelles (ULB). According to the lab, SAM functions like a second skeleton, running parallel to the arm and quite visible from the outside. SAM can be easily removed and mounted to interface with the human arm. SAM is a great device that will serve many purposes because of its reliable roll out of the arm and joints for smooth articulation.

Sensoric Arm Master (SAM) by Active Structures Laboratory of the Université Libre de Bruxelles

With the upper-limb Exoskeleton Prototype 3 (EXO-UL3), the Bionic lab of the UC Santa Cruz has managed to develop a new exoskeleton with usability enhancements in load sharing with the operator. This is a model hardware that runs parallel to the upper and lower arm and to the shoulder and elbow joints to amplify human muscle strength while taking on extra weight. This particular model has a stabilizing effect because of its rigid components.

Upper-limb Exoskeleton by Bionic lab of the UC Santa Cruz

Similarly, the Salford Robotics Lab is working on a “human friendly” lower and upper body exoskeleton for the assistance and rehabilitation for stroke patients. The robot relies on a braided pneumatic Muscle Actuators (pMAs) to produce of a muscle-like contact to replicate the strength of natural muscles.

Lower and upper body exoskeleton by Salford Robotics Lab

Though there are many progress still to be made, when developed in terms of material quality, comfortability, motion and precision, Exoskeleton and wearable Soft Exosuits can help improve mobility in areas where more muscle energy is required