Soft exosuits offer a new way to assist the elderly in maintaining or restoring their gait, in rehabilitating children and adults with movement disorders due to Stroke, Multiple Sclerosis and Parkinson’s Disease, or to ease the physical burden of soldiers, firefighters, paramedics, farmers, factory workers and others whose jobs require them to carry extremely heavy loads.
For decades engineers have built exoskeletons that use rigid links in parallel with the biological anatomy to increase strength and endurance in wearers, and to protect them from injury and physical stress. A number of systems have been developed that show strong commercial potential, for example, in helping spinal cord injury patients walk, or enabling soldiers carry heavy loads. However, rigid exoskeletons often fail to allow the wearer to perform his or her natural joint movements, are generally heavy, and can hence cause fatigue.
Wyss Institute researchers are pursuing a new paradigm: the use of soft clothing-like “exosuits”. An exosuit does not contain any rigid elements, so the wearer’s bone structure must sustain all the compressive forces normally encountered by the body — plus the forces generated by the exosuit. The suit, which is composed primarily of specially designed fabrics, can be significantly lighter than an exoskeleton since it does not contain a rigid structure, which provides minimal restrictions to the wearer’s motions and avoids problems related to joint misalignment. Optimized by insights from continuous research with voluntary study participants, soft exosuits excel at translating small amounts of force, applied by mechanical actuators in the suit at the right time into effective motions. In addition to soft exosuits that enhance the functionality of lower extremities, ongoing work at the Wyss is also developing prototypes that improve mobility of the upper extremities.
The Wyss Institute has demonstrated the beneficial impact of ankle-assisting soft exosuit technology in stroke patients and is collaborating with ReWalk Robotics, Ltd, to accelerate the development of the Institute’s lightweight, wearable soft exosuit technologies for assisting people with lower limb disabilities. The agreement with ReWalk will help speed the design of assistive exosuits that could help patients suffering from stroke and multiple sclerosis to regain mobility.
Licensing opportunities are available for additional soft exosuit applications.