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Robotics engineers seek to improve the human machine (exoskeletons for walk, run)

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INTRO: Cole Simpson calls himself a hobby runner. “I’ve run a couple of marathons and other long races, but I wasn’t winning any medals,” he says. Still, he wanted to keep up with his running buddies who are serious competitors. Being a biomechanical engineering graduate student at Stanford University, he wondered if there might be a way to “soup up” the human machine to make it run better. He and some research colleagues came up with a surprisingly simple idea: connect your ankles with a foot-long elastic strap.

Not exactly a bioengineering marvel, but the elastic worked. A controlled study showed that it reduced energy consumption during running by 6% [1]. Several other research teams are working on similar devices—called exoskeletons—that can help improve walking and running efficiency. The efforts have a long history; since the late 19th century, researchers have been devising springs, hydraulics, and other mechanisms to augment human performance. “A lot of them had great ideas, but then the results didn’t quite pan out the way that was expected,” Simpson says.

Only within the last decade have exoskeletons demonstrated the ability to lower energy consumption. This success is partly a result of advances in theoretical models of the human body in which the muscles, tendons, and joints are represented by actuators, springs, and levers. But exoskeleton developers have also realized that the human body is a unique machine that will adapt to the force inputs of a device in surprising ways. “To unlock the potential of these exoskeletons, we must understand the ‘learner’ connected to the device,” says Jessica Selinger, a neuromechanics researcher at Queen’s University in Canada who worked with Simpson on the strap.

Current research focuses on tuning the force inputs from an exoskeleton and observing the effect on a user’s performance. Recent work has optimized these inputs, achieving a 15% reduction in energy use [2]. Such devices would likely never be allowed in an official marathon race, but they might one day improve the mobility of someone who suffers from a disability or simply motivate someone to get out and run... (MORE)

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