An exoskeletal 'boot' allows faster and more efficient walking
Engineers at Stanford University (USA) have developed an ankle exoskeleton capable of adapting to each person, so that they can walk faster and spend less energy.
The prototype has been successfully tested in real conditions, on the street, and represents a new step towards future assisted walking devices that can be used by people with mobility problems.
Los exoskeletons that help to move the legs, increasing the speed of walking and reducing the energy needed, can be useful for people with mobility problems, among other applications. The benefits of these devices have been demonstrated, above all, in laboratories with treadmills, but not in real conditions, where the speed and duration of the walk are variable.
Now, Bioengineers from the Stanford University in California (USA) have manufactured a ‘boot’ exoskeletal that adapts to each user so that it can walk faster and more efficiently on the street, in real conditions. The results of his study, published in the Nature journal, show a new approach in the design of ‘wearable’ and their potential so that they can be used in everyday life in the future.
The device weighs 1.2 kg per ankle and has, among other components, portable sensors
strong> of low cost, power and information transmission systems, and batteries that are placed on the users' waist, in addition to a novel data management model with artificial intelligence.< /p>
“One of the advances of our work was the development of a machine learning model which uses data from wearable exoskeleton sensors (ankle angle, ankle speed, and applied torque) to determine the best assist pattern when using our device”, explains to SINC the main author, Patrick Slade.
The model compares changes in movement between different assistance conditions to see which are the best, tests others similar to these and repeats the process several times until it finds the one that best suits the characteristics of each user's gait. . “This approach slowly converges on what the device considers to be the best assistance pattern for each person”, says the engineer.
A machine learning model uses data from wearable exoskeleton sensors to determine the best assist pattern for each user.
The results of this new method are not only equal in efficiency to traditional systems used in laboratories to optimize exoskeletons, but it does so four times faster. In addition, various volunteers – some equipped with ‘respirometers’ to also measure your exchange of oxygen and CO2 with each breath—andndash; they successfully tested it on the university campus.
With the With real-world optimized exoskeleton assistance, the energy cost of walking was reduced by 17% and gait speed increased by 10%. by 9% (about 0.12 meters per second more) compared to wearing normal shoes alone. This energy saving is equivalent to taking off a 9.2 kg backpack.
“Until now, no exoskeleton has shown real-world benefits in terms of reducing the energy needed to walk or increasing gait speed,” Slade notes, “and this is This is because it is incredibly difficult to help humans walk due to our highly evolved and specialized muscular, tendon, and skeletal design, which makes movement very efficient.”
Helps the elderly and hard workers
At the moment this prototype has been evaluated with young and healthy people for safety reasons, but the authors trust that improved versions can be useful for others with walking difficulties, of They may be older or in physically demanding jobs, although further study will be required.
“Assistive devices such as this one could provide greater independence for  ;people with mobility problemsLike the elderly or those with muscle disease, and we've already started to study it,” says Slade, “and we can also use the same ideas to improve the collaboration between humans and robots  ;in a wide range of tasks (factory work, assisted living, surgery, etc.), using data-driven models that optimize robotic responses to human movements”.
With this device, it has been possible to reduce the energy cost of walking by 17% and increase its speed by 9% compared to wearing only normal shoes: it is like taking off a 9.2 kg backpack
“The main challenges we face now are to conduct experiments with specific clinical populations to determine what will be the best results. the most effective assistance for them –adds–. Next, we'll have to work with business partners to translate this technology into devices that can be purchased and used on a daily basis. Although our research prototype is functional, it needs a lot of engineering work to become a robust product in everyday life”.
Getting outside the lab
In a In a parallel article, also published in Nature, the researcher Carlos Rodríguez from University KU Leuven (Belgium) values this work: “The advances that are presented are significant since a relatively simple method is proposed that allows adapting the behavior of the exoskeleton to the user, obtaining information “In its use on a day-to-day basis, instead of being confined to complicated methods in highly specialized laboratories.”
“The nature of this method –he concludes–, allows the device to adapt more naturally and quickly to the differences in gait present in each of us. This decrease in complexity is accompanied by the promise of bringing this technology closer to end users and a little closer to a future where bionic devices are available to improve our quality of life”.
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