Soft Exosuit, Speed-Boosting Jetpack Projects Receive DARPA Funding

Chuck Bednar for redOrbit.com – Your Universe Online
DARPA has awarded a sizable grant to the Harvard University researchers behind a biologically-inspired soft exoskeleton that could help soldiers travel greater distances and carry heavier loads while tiring out less easily, the university revealed on Thursday.
The Soft Exosuit, which was developed by the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University, is a robotic suit designed to prevent and reduce musculoskeletal injuries for military personnel, Kristen Kusek of the Wyss Institute Communications Department explained. In addition, it could also have civilian applications, such as helping stroke patients and others have an easier time walking, she added.
The DARPA grant is for up to $2.9 million, said Brittany Hillen of SlashGear, and according to the university, it is a two-phase contract that will allow the Wyss Institute’s Conor Walsh to build upon their earlier proof-of-concept work. That previous work was also funded by DARPA, and was inspired by the fundamental mechanics of human walking.
“Unlike other exosuits designed to give humans super-human strength and endurance, the Soft Exosuit is… a soft wearable with soft sensors, flexible power units, and a design that can be worn beneath one’s clothing,” said Hillen. “The suit, says Harvard, is worn like a pair of pants… the design is made to mimic a human’s leg muscles and tendons during movement, and won’t have the drawbacks that come with big, heavy exosuits.”
The Soft Exosuit technology combines “entirely new forms of functional textiles, flexible power systems, soft sensors, and control strategies that enable intuitive and seamless human-machine interaction,” added Kusek. In addition to being designed in such a way to not interfere with a person’s natural joint movements, the flexible exoskeleton “provides small but carefully timed assistance at the leg joints without restricting the wearer’s movement.”
According to Wired UK’s Liat Clark, the US Navy recently reported that wearing the exoskeletons typically makes workers 27 times more productive, and the Harvard-developed system hopes to convey those benefits in a way that is far less bulky or cumbersome. The goal of the suit is not to replace the muscles, but to provide assistance on an as-needed basis, the developers said.
“While the idea of a wearable robot is not new, our design approach certainly is,” said Walsh. Wyss Institute director Don Ingber added that the research team was working “to fundamentally shift the paradigm of what is possible in wearable robotics.” Researchers from Boston University were also involved in the project, and the developers said that New Balance shoes and apparel would be offering their expertise on the next phase.

DARPA has also announced their support for a jetpack designed to help soldiers run a four-minute mile. The project, called 4MM (4 Minute Mile), was developed by Arizona State University faculty mentor Jason Kerestes and his associates, and is designed to enhance the speed and agility of the person wearing it. A prototype of the jetpack has already been completed and demonstrated, and it is now in the process of being refined, the university said in a video.
“Thus far, testers have been shaving seconds off their running time even while carrying the 11-pound jetpack, though the ASU researchers still have a ways to go to achieve their goal,” said Engadget reporter Mariella Moon. “Since being able to move fast without much rest can save your life in the battlefield, Harvard’s Soft Exosuit inventors should totally get together with these ASU researchers to make the ultimate getaway suit.”

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