Researchers have created a wearable device they say can extend energy while providing assistance for walking and running.

The robotic device, called an exosuit, is described in a study in the magazine Science. Researchers from Harvard University’s Wyss Institute say the exosuit demonstrates great possibilities for future inventions of lightweight wearables that could have mass appeal.

Many wearable assistive devices developed in the past have been designed mainly to help people with physical disabilities. The new exosuits could also help disabled people. However, they could also provide energy and speed to everyone.

The device is about five kilograms. It was built to be “simplified and nonrestrictive” compared to other wearable devices.

The robotic shorts are made of soft, stretchy material. A computer and motor control the device, which attaches around the waist and thighs. Cables connect the motor to the user’s upper leg. With each step, the system creates pressure on the cables. This gives power to the upper leg muscles.

The team called its system a “breakthrough” in wearable technology. One reason for this is that it is very difficult to build a device to assist both walking and running. Past developments have centered on either activity, but not both.

Walking and running use different hip movements, also known as a person’s gait. The new exosuit uses sensors and an algorithm to help it recognize which gait is being used. The device then attempts to provide assistance with walking or running motions.

The study found that a main result of this assistance is a reduction in the “metabolic cost” to a walker or runner. Metabolism is the process by which living things turn food into energy. A reduced metabolic rate means a person will use less energy while performing a physical activity.

In tests, the exosuit reduced the metabolic rate of walking by 9.3 percent, the researchers said. For running, the metabolic cost dropped about 4 percent. Less energy was required in tests involving flat surfaces as well as on hills, the study found.

Conor Walsh is a professor at the Wyss Institute. He helped lead the study. He admitted that the metabolic reductions were not huge. But he said the research presents possibilities for further development in wearable device technology.

The research team’s portable exosuit is made of textile components worn at the waist and thighs, with a mobile actuation system attached to the lower back. An algorithm is used to predict transitions between walking and running gaits. (Credit: Wyss Instit

The research team’s portable exosuit is made of textile components worn at the waist and thighs, with a mobile actuation system attached to the lower back. An algorithm is used to predict transitions between walking and running gaits. (Credit: Wyss Instit

Walsh said the study demonstrates that a lightweight wearable assisting device can help “pave the way for these systems to become ubiquitous in our lives.”

The researchers noted that the lower metabolic rates also have the effect of making a person feel lighter. The testing showed that a person walking with the device would feel 7.4 kilograms lighter. A runner would feel 5.7 kilograms lighter.

The team is still doing research. No devices are currently available to the public. One of the team’s major goals is to reduce the weight of the device by at least 40 percent. Researchers also plan to add more individualized assistance possibilities. They also hope to improve the system to fit as many uses as possible.

In addition to people with disabilities, the team hopes the devices can help people at risk for work injuries as well as those who just want to improve their physical performance.

I’m Bryan Lynn.

Bryan Lynn wrote this story for VOA Learning English, based on reports from Harvard’s Wyss Institute, Science and online sources. Ashley Thompson was the editor.

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Words in This Story

cable n.a thick, strong wire

breakthrough n.an important discovery of development

algorithm n.a set of steps that are followed in order to solve a mathematical problem or to complete a computer process

pave the way phrase.to make another thing possible

ubiquitousadj.seeming to be everywhere