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The field of robotics isn’t limited to humanoids and android pets: Engineers are building soft exosuits to protect rescue workers and enhance quality of life for the disabled and elderly.

Harvard researchers in May unveiled their latest generation of mobile multi-joint exosuit, which can be customized based on an individual wearer’s body.

The device, first presented at the 2018 IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation, looks like something that belongs in a laboratory, not on a battlefield.

But, as described in a paper published by the Journal of NeuroEngineering and Rehabilitation, the wearable is aimed at soldiers and firefighters traversing difficult terrain.

It features various components worn at the waist, thighs, and calves; an optimized mobile actuation system attaches to the bottom of a standard rucksack to apply assistive force to the user’s hip and ankle joints.

The exosuit automatically tunes power delivered at the foot to match the individual’s gait.

“We have updated all components in this new version of the multi-joint soft exosuit,” according to David Perry, study co-author and a staff engineer at the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University.

“The apparel is more user-friendly, easy to put on, and accommodating to different body shapes,” he said in a statement. “The actuation is more robust, lighter, quieter, and smaller; and the control system allows us to apply forces to hips and ankles more robustly and consistently.”

Funded by DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) as part of its former Warrior Web program, the exosuit was field-tested in 12-mile-plus cross-country hikes.

This version of the exosuit reduced the metabolic cost of walking by almost 15 percent compared to walking without the device.

“We are now continuing to optimize the technology for specific uses in the Army, where dynamic movements are important; and we are exploring it for assisting workers in factories performing strenuous physical tasks,” study lead Conor Walsh, a professor at the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS), said.

The team—comprised of roboticists, engineers, biomechanic experts, and apparel designers—envisions their soft exosuits helping rescue workers save energy for critical tasks.

Another group from the Wyss Institute and SEAS (also piloted by Walsh) recently developed a machine-learning algorithm to help tailor soft exosuits.

Harvard scientists previously built a robotic exosuit that reduces physical exertion for runners. They also created a gentle robot hand to help study underwater organisms. Find out more about the University’s work here.

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