We all know what exoskeletons look and sound like; we’ve been trained by Hollywood depictions ranging from Alien to Iron Man. Exoskeletons are big and clunky, like medieval suits of armor, and are accompanied by a symphony of whirring motors and hydraulic actuators. And all this machinery and mass requires some powerful engines to make it all go. Researchers at Hiroshima University have a different vision: one that does not even require any electricity.
Sometimes patients only need a little assist to help them walk or climb stairs. A simple system could also help workers complete their tasks with less exertion, or athletes run faster or farther with a little help. The answer is the Unplugged Powered Suit (UPS). The key component is an analog muscle made from a gel that can be powered pneumatically. By adding a small bellows under the opposite heel of the patient’s foot, the weight of the body will push air into the actuator, which can then help move the patient’s leg. In short, the device is powered by simply harvesting power from the patient’s walking motion, using simple mechanical systems.
The fact that this system does not require any stored power — such as electricity — or any digital electronics to control it means that it could possibly be produced at a low cost, putting it within practical reach for the elderly living at home or for rehabilitation programs. The actuator can be used to assist other parts of the body, and the whole system could conceivably be incorporated into clothing. Using the system could be as simple as getting dressed. The researchers envision the possible addition of sensors in the future as well.