Science 4 min read

Human Exoskeletons Could be Just Around the Corner

Thanks to research from a team from MIT, exoskeletons may be just around the corner. | Image by IRINA SHI | Shutterstock

Thanks to research from a team from MIT, exoskeletons may be just around the corner. | Image by IRINA SHI | Shutterstock

An MIT research group is working on the development of innovative exoskeleton devices that assist their wearers and augment their physicality.

Humans, like all mammals, birds, and fish have endoskeletons, or internal skeletons.

An endoskeleton is a frame consisting of rigid bone or semi-rigid cartilage structures, connected to each other by ligaments and to muscles by tendons.

Exoskeletons, on the other hand, perform a similar function, supporting the body but from the outside.

Insects like spiders, cockroaches, and ants; some mollusks like snails; and crustaceans like crabs and lobsters all have exoskeletons that come in different shapes and structures.

As a technology, powered exoskeletons are artificial mechanical systems that assist their user in performing physical tasks, overcoming disabilities, and increasing their strength.

Read More: Meet the Hero Arm: The World’s First Fully Bionic Prosthesis

As an assistive technology, exoskeletal devices can be counted as wearables that come in a variety of types, such as powered prosthetics, bionic limbs, lower and upper body supports, and military and sports exoskeletons.

Researchers at the Biomechatronics Group, one of the research groups at MIT Media Lab, have been working for years to advance the technology of powered exoskeletons.

Exoskeletons to Bring the age of Biomechanical Humans

Hugh Herr, director of the MIT’s Biomechatronics group, has a dream of, one day, being able to don an exosuit and run at 20 mph, all day, without getting tired. In other words, increasing his endurance beyond what nature has set his body for.

This scene reminds me of the fairytale Hop-o’-My-Thumb, a lesser known story written by Charles Perrault, the author of immortal classics such as the Sleeping Beauty, Little Red Riding Hood, and Cinderella.

In this fairytale, the title character steals the “seven-leagues boots” that adjust to the size of the wearer’s feet and allow them to make seven leagues in a single stride.

Herr, an engineer and biophysicist, lost both of his legs in a climbing accident in 1982, which set him on a mission that he’s still pursuing today, givibg him the nickname of the “bionic man”.

“That would be exhilarating and beautiful and a type of experience that humans aren’t currently able to have,” sharing the same vision with Prof. Herr, his team leader, PhD student Tyler Clites told the BBC.

Within the Biomechatronics Group, Clites worked on several projects like prosthetic sockets and a neural-controlled exoskeleton for a rabbit.

Clites, with his fellow biomechanical and biomedical engineers, is now fine-tuning the technology to build biohybrid prostheses that communicate with the body via the wearer’s thoughts.

The robotic exosuits they’re developing are based on what they call neuro-embodied design, which bridges the gap between the human nervous system and devices allowing for far more harmony.

The exoskeleton prosthetics now being developed at the lab are not meant just for medical application like for amputees and people with disabilities.

They also seek to cater for workers whose job requires physical efforts that would endanger their safety and impact their productivity.

“Right now someone can use a forklift to lift heavy materials. But, if they were able to wear an exoskeleton that allowed them to do the same thing, it would perhaps better connect them to the task they are performing,” said Clites.

Currently, exoskeletons and other assistive prosthetics are heavy and cumbersome. However, the Biomechatronics Group researchers think they’ll gradually reduce their devices’ bulkiness to the point where they’ll be able to implement the technology into “high-performance clothing”.

Do you think exoskeletons will soon become commercially available?

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Zayan Guedim

Trilingual poet, investigative journalist, and novelist. Zed loves tackling the big existential questions and all-things quantum.

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