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More specifically, the team at Stanford, led by Steve Collins, an associate professor of mechanical engineering at the university, built the device to gather more data regarding the best way to assist a runner with an exoskeleton device. With the right design there may be the potential to make running 15% easier. It could even boost a given runner’s speed by 10%.
The emulator used in the research consists of a carbon fiber frame. The frame straps around a user’s shin, from just below the knee down to the ankle joint. This, in turn, attaches to a metal lever. One end of the lever literally sticks inside of a user’s shoe. The other end attaches to large, standalone motors by a combination of ropes and cables. When a user runs, the device pulls their shoes up in the air by the ankle exoskeleton system after each toe-off (the point in a person’s gait at which the foot rises from the floor). This allows runners to save energy.
“Imagine someone was running behind you and holding little ropes that were attached to your heels and every time you push off the ground, instead of having to do all the work, someone else lifted your feet for you,” Delaney Miller, a graduate student of mechanical engineering and member of the research team says in the video above. She adds that “it feels very springy and very bouncy compared to normal running.” (Although this is a qualitative explanation of what’s happening, Collins et al. were able to register quantitative data based on a mask the runners wore, which gauged how much oxygen they breathed in and how much carbon dioxide they breathed out.)
Optimized, powered ankle exoskeleton assistance can reduce the energy cost of running by 25% wrt zero torque, 15% wrt no exo. Spring-like assistance was ineffective.— Steve Collins (@StevenHCollins) March 25, 2020
With Kirby Ann Witte, @fiers_pieter & @AlisonLSheets in @SciRobotics: https://t.co/SbjQPez9JA pic.twitter.com/bQUczUGDfP
Moving forward, the researchers say it’ll likely be possible to turn an untethered version of the ankle exoskeleton into an effective, real-world device. “You can almost think of it as a mode of transportation,” Guan Rong Tan, a graduate student in mechanical engineering involved with the research, said. “You could get off a bus, slap on an exoskeleton, and cover the last one-to-two miles to work in five minutes without breaking a sweat.”