We’ve all grown accustomed to seeing our superheroes in Spandex suits, running faster than a normal person, lifting more than one ought to be able to lift, and demonstrating endurance unheard of for a normal human being, but the costume itself is never depicted as a source of that power. If you want added performance out of a super suit, Iron Man comes to mind, not Captain America.
Exosuits have been in development for years now by the military and private organizations seeking to enhance a human being’s utilitarian capabilities. We’ve all seen them. Some look like bipedal forklifts, others more like full-body metal braces. But each of these suits operates under the same basic principle we find in fictional heroes: If you want to increase strength and endurance through a suit, you’re going to need to look like a robot.
But a paper published by a Harvard team in the peer-reviewed journal “Science Robots” last week has turned that concept on its head. The team of 11 scientists, researchers, and engineers produced the first successful “soft exosuit” that enhances and improves human mobility while bearing more in common with The Rock’s under-armor than with Fallout’s power armor.
By attaching a series of fabric components to the human body, at the hip, ankle, and calf, then using bands to connect them in specific ways, the suit serves as a supplement to the body’s natural movements via an electric motor at the ankle.
“Essentially what we’re doing is we’re trying to leverage our advances in apparel to create an artificial muscle that works in parallel with the underlying biological muscle,” said study author Conor Walsh, a researcher at Harvard University’s John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. “These are textile components that allow us to anchor the wearer and attach components comfortably and securely to the human body.”
Harvard tested their soft exoskeleton by suiting up a series of participants and putting them on a treadmill. They then measured each walker’s metabolic output as they walked with the suit powered on and then off. Because the suit includes little more than what look like electric leg warmers and a belt, it didn’t restrict the movement of the participants when powered down, but when turned on, Harvard’s scientists found that the body consumed 23 percent less energy when walking.
While this suit won’t put Iron Man’s to shame, it could prove to be a much more feasibly widespread deployment of exoskeleton technology than current hard-frame models, as the costs associated with the device are significantly lower. And because the current setup was designed only to assist in “plantar flexion and hip flexion,” further research could produce similar components to aid other joint movements—eventually culminating in a Batman costume that could actually make you a bit more like Batman…or at least in a suit that could dramatically reduce fatigue for the average infantry soldier stuck carrying a hundred-pound pack in combat.
The suit is still in its earliest stages of development, and is expected to take another 10 to 15 years before being available commercially, but it may be life-changing for soldiers in the field, laborers, or even those with disabilities once complete.
“It’s a study that helps us understand the relationships and the trade-offs between the systems you give and the benefits that a person can get,” Walsh said.
Who knows? One day soon, we may be issuing our soldiers robotic underwear instead of clunky robotic suits. Iron Man never saw that coming.
Images courtesy of the Harvard Biodesign Lab