A lightweight, durable and inexpensive exoskeleton that works by using a pneumatic gel as its motor has been developed by scientists at Hiroshima University.
The device, called the Unplugged Power suit (UPS), consists of three parts: the drive (PGM), the pump – which supplies air pressure for the flexing artificial muscle – and the pipework – which transmits energy between the two.
“The UPS is designed to support human motion where and when needed. It also does not contain any heavy devices. This means that we can customize the UPS to the user’s particular needs such as muscle strength for athletes and rehabilitation,” said associate professor at Hiroshima University Dr Yuichi Kurita.
The UPS’ developers hope that it will be used to improve the quality of life for people who struggle with mobility, and to aid healthy people who enjoy sports activities.
To assist with mobility, the UPS has been stripped of a traditional exoskeleton’s tank, but is still capable of supplying sufficient power to support human motion.
The sporting community will also benefit from the lack of a tank, which the scientists say will allow athletes to decrease muscle activity during jogging, for instance, which could be quite useful for athletes returning from injury.
The developers imagine the UPS will have different functions added to it so it will be more useful as a monitoring tool. “In the future, we can develop smarter assistive suits including wearable actuators and sensors by using our technique,” said Dr Kurita.
Traditional exoskeletons have had contend with the fact that their bulky frame makes some tasks – like walking upstairs – difficult to do.
Because it is so lightweight the UPS does not suffer from this problem, and as Dr Kurita points out, it is able “to support human hip movement”.
However, the team at Hiroshima University aren’t the only ones testing this kind of technology. Earlier this month it was reported that Swiss sensory motor scientists are working on a new generation of more flexible, less constraining, powered exoskeletons that improve the lives of the severely disabled and paralyzed.
The device being developed by the Swiss Federal institute of Technology, replicates the natural movement of human lower limbs, in an attempt to improve the type of exoskeleton currently being manufactured.
“Hopefully we will build systems that allow you to do more tasks,” said researcher at the Swiss Federal institute of Technology Volker Bartenbach, in an interview with Reuters.