From the same place that brought you the Robot Suit HAL comes the “motorized knee.” Designed by researchers at Japan’s Tsukuba University the device supports the flex of the knee, which enables a runner to use 30 percent less muscle power compared to running unassisted.
Coming in a kit, the device consists of a small motor that helps flex the knee, a sensor that detects the knees’ degree of flex, and a safety lever - all of which attach to the user's leg. The user is also forced to carry a backpack that holds a control unit and battery to power the motor. All up the device weighs around 5kg, which will probably mitigate the performance benefits of wearing the device somewhat. In experiments runners wearing the device could jog at 7.5kmh, which is hardly anything special - but presumably they could do it for longer.
Curiously, the makers of the motorized knee say it isn’t designed for the physically handicapped. Rather it is intended for people who want to run in a more efficient way. I can’t help thinking this trims down the potential market considerably. After all, most runners I know do it for the sake of their fitness. Wouldn’t a device that is designed to do some of the work mean that someone would have to run for longer to receive the same fitness benefits?
Regardless, the research team expects to commercialize the kit within the next three years, by which time they also plan to have made the device significantly smaller and lighter.