Powered exoskeletons show great promise both for augmenting the abilities of able-bodied users, and for rehabilitating the disabled. That said, they also tend to be hard-bodied contraptions that don’t look particularly comfortable (or light) to wear. Researchers at Harvard University’s Wyss Institute recently demonstrated what they hope will be a more user-friendly alternative – a “soft exosuit.”

Sensors on the wearer’s lower back, hip, calf and ankle detect user-initiated movements. The system responds to those movements by selectively pumping air into bladders within the suit, providing support and a boost to the user’s own muscle power.

Made mainly from “specially designed fabrics,” the exosuit is reportedly much lighter than a hard exoskeleton, plus it provides few restrictions to the user’s natural movements. Exoskeletons, by contrast, can cause joint problems if knees, hips or ankles are powered through movements in which they’re not properly aligned.

The exosuit was designed primarily by Connor Walsh, who is also developing the Warrior Web suit. While that outfit is intended specifically for use by soldiers, the soft exosuit could conceivably also be used to help people like farmers, paramedics or firefighters in their load-carrying tasks; to assist in maintaining or restoring walking ability in the elderly; and, to rehabilitate people with movement disorders such as cerebral palsy.

The current prototype can be seen in action in the video below. The final version of the suit may use electrical actuators instead of compressed air.

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