Some of the most exciting breakthroughs in robotics are taking place in the space of the exoskeleton. Sure, any robotic system worth its salt has the potential to bring about change, but this is one of the categories where such changes are immediately felt – it’s particularly about improving the lives of people with reduced mobility.
A team from Stanford’s Biomechatronics Laboratory just published the results of years of research into the category in Nature. The project started – as these things often do – through simulations and lab work. The scope of real-world testing of the robotic shoe has so far been limited to treadmills. The researchers behind it, however, to make it ready for life outside the lab doors.
“This exoskeleton personalizes assistance as people normally walk through the real world,” says lab chief Steve Collins said in a release. “And it resulted in exceptional improvements in walking speed and energy efficiency.”
The principle behind startup is similar to what powers some of these systems. Rather than trying to work for the wearer, it provides assistance and reduces some of the drag and friction associated with mobility limitations. Where the lab says their approach differs, however, is in the machine learning models it uses to “personalize” the push it gives the calf muscle.
The researchers liken the assistance to removing a “30-pound backpack” from the user. Collins adds,
Thanks to optimized assistance, people were able to walk 9% faster with 17% less energy consumption per distance traveled, compared to walking in normal shoes. These are the biggest improvements in the speed and energy of an exoskeleton to run economically. In direct comparisons to a treadmill, our exoskeleton provides about twice as much effort as previous devices.
Those kinds of numbers are provided in part by the emulators that are the basis for much of the research. The boot is the culmination of about 20 years of lab research, and now the team is working on commercializing the project, with plans to bring it to market in “the next few years.” They are also developing variations on the hardware to improve balance and reduce joint pain.