‘Wearable robot’ from Harvard scores DARPA funding, New Balance partnership

Credit: Harvard's Wyss Institute
Credit: Harvard's Wyss Institute

A soft, wearable exoskeleton under construction has received a $2.9 million shot of funding from DARPA, Harvard University and the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Design announced Thursday. Also, New Balance, Boston maker of 3D printed shoes, will be a collaborator on the “wearable robot” project going forward.

Credit: Harvard University

Credit: Harvard’s Wyss Institute

Conor Walsh, head of the Harvard Biodesign Lab, and lead researcher designing the suit, refers to it as a “wearable robot,” because of the way it can be worn under regular clothing, and how it straps on like a web around your limbs.

Unlike other exoskeletons being tested or being sold, like the sturdy and tough ReWalk or Ekso Bionics suits, this “Soft Exosuit” is entirely flexible.

The initial goal is to enhance the wearer’s endurance — allowing them to walk longer, for example — and strength. A key design strategy is to integrate the suit’s abilities with the body’s natural movement, so that it provides the right amount of kick at the right moment.

“When the suit is active, the underlying muscles at the ankle and at the hip are doing less work,” Walsh said.

The suit’s ability rely on its unique architecture, and the combination of elastic and non-stretchable materials that it’s made of. Overlaid on the limbs, the cabling mimics what the muscles and tendons are doing, Walsh explained. Motors hoisted on the hip power the device.

Credit: Havard's Wyss Institute

Credit: Havard’s Wyss Institute

As part of this next phase of the project, the researchers will focus on adapting the design to help people whose movements are impaired, Walsh said. He expects that a version of the suit, say to help hikers on long trips, can be available to buy and wear in the next two to five years.

Meanwhile, continuing work will focus on improving the efficiency of the system, and crucially, decreasing the weight. In its current form, the device weighs a little over 13 lbs.

DARPA, the Defense Advance Research Projects Agency, focuses on creating advanced technologies for national security uses.

Departments within the military are developing other designs with similar goals, the the Navy’s FORTIS suit is one among them.

Editor’s note: This article was updated to include comments from Conor Walsh. 

Nidhi Subbaraman writes about science and research. Email her at nidhi.subbaraman@globe.com.
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