Human walking now becomes more efficient

Humans
have evolved to be incredibly efficient at walking. In fact, simulations of
human locomotion show that walking on level ground and at a steady speed should
theoretically require no power input at all. But anyone who works on their feet
or has taken an arduous hike knows otherwise. In fact, people expend more
energy during walking than any other activity in daily life, and for the
elderly and those with mobility issues, that energy can be precious.

Walking
around campus with the exoskeleton on one leg. The unpowered clutch (upper
left) engages a spring (left) in parallel with the Achilles tendon when the
foot is on the ground, offloading the calf muscles and making walking easier.
Credit: Carnegie Mellon University College of Engineering

For
decades, engineers have envisioned systems that could make walking easier. In
fact, so many researchers have tried to build unpowered exoskeletons and failed
that it was hotly debated in the field whether it was even possible to improve
the efficiency of walking without adding an external energy source. In news
reported today in Nature, researchers from Carnegie Mellon University and North
Carolina State University have demonstrated an unpowered ankle exoskeleton that
reduces the metabolic cost of walking by approximately 7 percent. The results
are roughly the equivalent of taking off a 10-pound backpack, and are
equivalent to savings from exoskeletons that use electrically-powered devices.
The research was based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation.

An
unpowered clutch engages a spring in parallel with the Achilles tendon when the
foot is on the ground, offloading the calf muscles and making walking easier.
Credit: Steve Collins

“It’s
a real exciting milestone for the field of assistive devices,” said Thomas
Roberts, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at Brown University
and an expert in the biomechanics of locomotion, who was not involved in the
research. “They’ve taken an assistive device and lowered the cost of human
walking. That’s kind of a big deal because walking is already really cheap, and
they did it with a very simple, but clever device.” The device is the
result of eight years of patient and incremental work, mapped out on a
whiteboard by Steve Collins and Greg Sawicki when they were graduate students
together at the University of Michigan in 2007.

“Walking
is more complicated than you might think,” said Collins, an assistant
professor of mechanical engineering at Carnegie Mellon. “Everyone knows
how to walk, but you don’t actually know how you walk.” “You can
imagine these lightweight efficient devices being worn on the affected limb to
help people with the permanent aftereffects of stroke,” Collins said.
“We’re hopeful that designs that use similar techniques can help people
who have had a stroke walk more easily. We’re still a little ways away from
doing that, but we certainly plan to try.”
In
the future, the team intends to test the current device with individuals who have
a variety of mobility issues to determine what designs might work best for
different populations. They are also interested in developing exoskeleton
components for the knee and the hip, where they believe they may be able to
garner even larger benefits. “As we understand human biomechanics better,
we’ve begun to see wearable robotic devices that can restore or enhance human
motor performance,” said Collins. “This bodes well for a future with
devices that are lightweight, energy-efficient, and relatively inexpensive, yet
enhance human mobility.” (Source: Phys.org)

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