Walking and running are augmented by these exoskeletal shorts

Technology |  2 min. read

(Photo from Wyss Institute)

Got any extra room in your closet?

Not to be nosy, but we think you might want space for a pair of these shorts pictured above – because those are robotic shorts.

Not shorts FOR robots, shorts made WITH robots.

The researchers at Harvard’s Wyss Institute (where they were invented) have a slightly more precise description: these “lightweight exosuits are a new class of soft robots that combine classical robotic design and control principles with functional apparel to increase the wearer’s strength, balance and endurance.”

Now let’s translate that.  If you’re familiar with “exoskeletons” (we’ve written about them before) you’re probably picturing something like an artificial skeleton that you strap yourself into.  For a paralyzed vet, that rigid framework can make it possible to walk again, though that walking is certainly hard work.

What the folks at the Wyss Institute have come up with is more like, well, a pair of shorts.  Soft, flexible material (Spandex® base layer with NuStim® friction panels). A battery and motor pack sit on a waist belt (VC-Time tactical belt).  Powers cables inside the shorts help power your hips when you walk or run.

And what makes those materials possible? Yep, petrochemicals. Spandex® is a special type of poly-ether/polyurea copolymer fabric. The NuStim panels are an advanced polyurethane foam that is melted onto a Lycra®/nylon fabric. And the tactical belt that can support and keep the weight of the battery and motor at the waistline is made from rugged nylon.

Spandex® and Lycra® start with benzene or toluene as primary building block, along with a glycol that uses ethylene or propylene. Nylon is a polyamide resulting from hexamethylene diamine (starts with butadiene) and adipic acid (starts with benzene).

It’s amazing that so many different materials can come from the six “enes” – ethylene, propylene, butadiene, benzene, toluene and xylene!

What does that mean?

For the average person, walking or running takes less energy in exoshorts, so you can walk or run farther, faster.

For someone with a job that involves heavy lifting, an exoshirt with back support, could make it possible to carry more without hurting yourself.

But for a person with a physical disability, or someone recovering from a stroke, exoshorts that extend down to the ankle (exopants) could help that person learn to walk again, while keeping them safer from falls.

And you can imagine the soldier of the future in an exoshirt and exopants, moving faster, carrying more.

All that’s to come, as the soft exosuit, aka robot shorts are just starting to make it out of the lab, into the world.

But in the future, if you end up with any robot friends — they might like a nice pair of robot shorts for Christmas.