In 2017, we wrote about researchers at Harvard University’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences and Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering who focus on wearable robotics to assist human walking. The earlier post reported the team’s work with researchers from several other universities to develop a soft exosuit that measured gait mechanics to help people walk.

The Cambridge-based team recently published a report in Science on a new exosuit developed as part of a Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) program with researchers from the University of Nebraska Omaha. The latest wearable aids both walking and running, the first portable technology that can do both. Answering the challenge of different biomechanics in walking and running, the engineers focused on hip joint extensions, a common factor in both activities. The hip-assisting exosuit incorporates textile components at the waist and thighs with an actuator attached to the lower back. The actuator senses changes in a wearer’s gait-related vertical movements. Based on that input, the wearable applies appropriate force to propel the body forward.

Users who wore the exosuit treadmill tests reduced their “metabolic costs” of walking by 9.3% and running by 4%, according to the researchers. The breakthrough in the current study was a single algorithm that could detect gate changes and adjust the assistance automatically. Next steps include reducing the exosuit’s weight, refining assistance levels, and improving ease of use. Once the technology is refined, potential applications include rehab, assisting people with gait impairments, support for industry workers who perform strenuous tasks, and even weekend warriors.