Forget Iron Man: skintight suits are the future of robotic exoskeletons

Thanks to Jacki Thomas for suggesting this post.

Children with a rare neurological disease were recently given the chance to walk for the first time thanks to a new robotic exoskeleton. These devices – which are essentially robotic suits that give artificial movement to a user’s limbs – are set to become an increasingly common way of helping people who’ve lost the use of their legs to walk. But while today’s exoskeletons are mostly clumsy, heavy devices, new technology could make them much easier and more natural to use by creating a robotic skin.

Exoskeletons have been in development since the 1960s. The first one was a bulky set of legs and claw-like gloves reminiscent of the superhero, Iron Man, designed to use hydraulic power to help industrial workers lift hundreds of kilogrammes of weight. It didn’t work, but since then other designs for both the upper and lower body have successfully been used to increase people’s strength, help teach them to use their limbs again, or even as a way to interact with computers using touch or “haptic” feedback….

….To make exoskeletons more practical and appealing, we need innovations to make them more like a “second skin” than a giant robotic suit. Exoskeletons typically use heavy electric motors, but lightweight actuators such as pneumatic muscles are now being considered. These can produce similar forces to electric motors but at a fraction of the weight. The muscles consist of a rubber bladder surrounded by a woven sleeve. When pressurised, they increase in diameter and contract in length, pulling the joint. They are made from lightweight materials but can generate the force needed to lift many hundreds of kilogrammes.

However, even these lightweight actuators still need to be attached to a rigid mechanical structure mounted to the user’s body. Myself and my colleagues at the University of Salford’s Centre for Autonomous Systems and Robotics are developing another alternative: soft robotics. This technology uses physically soft advanced materials to carry out similar tasks to traditional rigid robotic devices. They are particularly well suited to interaction with humans as they are typically lightweight which means if they collide with a person they are unlikely to cause injury.

We recently developed a new “soft continuum actuator”, a joint that bends like an elephant’s trunk. Unlike a traditional rigid robot joint, if it encounters resistance in one part of its body it will still bend but at a different location elsewhere along its length. By equipping a skintight material suit with these actuators, we can create a soft exoskeleton that bends at the precise location of the wearer’s joints. This means the suit will fit a range of users comfortably without needing mechanical adjustment or calibration. Plus, the system is lightweight and can be worn like clothing rather than a bulky mechanical frame. Edited from Forget Iron Man

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