Harvard-built soft exosuit helps patients with limited mobility

The exosuit is designed to help sufferers of conditions such as MS to regain mobility(Credit: Wyss Institute at Harvard University)

Developed by researchers at Harvard's Wyss Institute, a new lightweight exosuit, which features a "soft" fabric-based design, could help patients with lower limb disabilities regain mobility. The institute has partnered with ReWalk Robotics – the biggest name in powered exoskeletons - for the ambitious project.

The team members studied the biomechanics of how we walk, in an effort to understand what makes it such an efficient process. The exosuit they created isn't a fully powered piece of kit, but is instead designed to provide relatively small levels of assistance to those with physical disabilities.

According to the researchers, the suit is the first of its kind. It's the result of extensive prototyping, with the development of the wearable robot forcing the team to create new flexible power systems, and functional textiles.

The end result is an exosuit that could provide effective assistance for those having suffered a stroke, or with conditions such as multiple sclerosis. More broadly, its creators feel that it could also be helpful for helping elderly patients become more mobile.

The form-fitted, fabric design is non-restrictive and lightweight, and makes use of powerful actuators hidden away inside the belt. It's designed to assist the user's movement in a natural-feeling way, providing greater stability while reducing fatigue.

It's notably different from exoskeletons we've seen in the past, which feature rigid builds. Take, for example, ReWalk's own powered exoskeletons, which – now in their sixth iteration – have been on sale since 2012.

The new exosuit is less hefty, designed for people who can move partially on their own, helping them overcome mobility issues caused by illness or age. Its fabric build also means that it could be produced at a lower cost than other exosuits, potentially making it more affordable to the user.

"The soft exosuit is a wonderful example of how understanding how living systems work – in this case the movement and control of the human body – can inspire design of an innovative wearable robotic technology that has the potential to change the future of medicine," said Wyss Institute director Donald Ingber.

The Wyss Institute team plans to continue its development of the exosuit, with the eventual goal of bringing it to the marketplace. The team believes that the new partnership with ReWalk will enable it to further develop the suit for a range of commercial medical applications.

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