“Skinny Jeans” Exoskeleton Helps Advance Machine-Assisted Mobility


Researchers from Harvard University’s Wyss Institute have unveiled a new mechanical exoskeleton made of stretchable fabric and embedded wires that, once perfected, may fit underneath a pair of normal pants and support disabled people in variety of new capacities.

The exoskeleton does include a cumbersome belt, where motors and a battery pack are attached, but beyond this is just a pair of what looks like black yoga pants and some cloth strapping. There is little that would prevent a user from slipping on a pair of jeans, and this is just the goal that researchers are working toward.

The new approach to mechanically-assisted movement started by studying the natural movements of the human body as we perform basic tasks, like walking, jumping, and lifting. Next, tight-fitting pants were created with sections of elastic “gummy” padding that were sewn into the fabric of the pants and helped ease the workload of the muscles as they performed each movement. On top of this structure, thin cable “tendons” run throughout, and attached to a small hip-worn motor, they provide additional locomotion at key points to further reduce the physical burden of moving. One of these tendons, for example, runs vertically from the waist to the Achilles tendon and helps lift the back of the heal during each step.

The equipment still needs refinement, but initial applications include supporting manufacturing jobs that require heavy lifting, such as ship building, and military use. Special forces soldiers routinely find themselves hiking with heavy loads through challenging terrain, and the new exoskeletons have attracted the DoD’s special labs division DARPA, who invested nearly $3 million to fund continued research. Eventually, the equipment could find a home in health care, where some disabled patients could return to walking with the right support.

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