Quirks & Quarks

Iron Man takes his first steps - an exoskeleton that learns to walk

Personalized exoskeletons are helping amputees and the elderly significantly improve their ability to walk
A personalized exoskeleton. (Carnegie Mellon University)

While we might dream of flying super-suits, in the real world, exoskeletons are being designed to enhance mobility in amputees, the elderly and others with mobility issues.  But designers have had limited success until recently.  That's because engineers had difficulty matching the machines help to the idiosyncrasies of individual users bodies and walking gaits.  

That motivated researchers including Dr. Steve Collins, an Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh to developed an improved ankle exoskeleton that learned how its user walked, so as to help them do it better.

The team developed an algorithm for their exoskeleton, that tried different patterns of assisted movement for each user, until it found exactly the adjustment the individual needed in order to help them walk.  

In what the scientists refer to as 'human-in-the-loop optimization, the exoskeleton was able to provide a reduced energy expenditure by an average of 24 per cent for the 11 volunteers in the experiment.  

Dr. Collins expects that similar exoskeleton devices will one day be available to enhance mobility for other areas of the body, or to provide additional support for long distance runners and hikers.