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Soft exosuit offers an alternative to rigid exoskeletons


July 2, 2013

The prototype soft exosuit in action

The prototype soft exosuit in action

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Powered exoskeletons show great promise both for augmenting the abilities of able-bodied users, and for rehabilitating the disabled. That said, they also tend to be hard-bodied contraptions that don’t look particularly comfortable (or light) to wear. Researchers at Harvard University’s Wyss Institute recently demonstrated what they hope will be a more user-friendly alternative – a “soft exosuit.”

Sensors on the wearer’s lower back, hip, calf and ankle detect user-initiated movements. The system responds to those movements by selectively pumping air into bladders within the suit, providing support and a boost to the user’s own muscle power.

Made mainly from “specially designed fabrics,” the exosuit is reportedly much lighter than a hard exoskeleton, plus it provides few restrictions to the user’s natural movements. Exoskeletons, by contrast, can cause joint problems if knees, hips or ankles are powered through movements in which they’re not properly aligned.

The exosuit was designed primarily by Connor Walsh, who is also developing the Warrior Web suit. While that outfit is intended specifically for use by soldiers, the soft exosuit could conceivably also be used to help people like farmers, paramedics or firefighters in their load-carrying tasks; to assist in maintaining or restoring walking ability in the elderly; and, to rehabilitate people with movement disorders such as cerebral palsy.

The current prototype can be seen in action in the video below. The final version of the suit may use electrical actuators instead of compressed air.

Source: Harvard University via NBC News

About the Author
Ben Coxworth An experienced freelance writer, videographer and television producer, Ben's interest in all forms of innovation is particularly fanatical when it comes to human-powered transportation, film-making gear, environmentally-friendly technologies and anything that's designed to go underwater. He lives in Edmonton, Alberta, where he spends a lot of time going over the handlebars of his mountain bike, hanging out in off-leash parks, and wishing the Pacific Ocean wasn't so far away. All articles by Ben Coxworth

My understanding is that the hard exoskeletons bear their own weight so doesn't this become more burdensome in that aspect?

Ian Mitko

As far as I can see this system only supplements the power of the calf. It does not relief the stress on the joints, actually the opposite, it increase it. Another solution looking for a problem.


This doesn't seem like a terrible idea. The problem I have with exosuits is kind of like using the nautilus equipment in the gym for leg extensions and curls.

Even if I mess with the adjustments on the machine I never seem to be able to get it to match my natural pivot point of my own join exactly. It is an obsticle some machines overcome with a roller like this one: http://i.imgur.com/nAFPboC.jpg

The machines without a roller I find uncomfortable as the pad needs to move up or down my leg near the end of the range of motion and it put pressure on my skin or joints as out slightly different arc ranges clash. Though "hard" exoskeletons are supposed to reduce load on joints I could potentially see them suffering from the same problem.

I could see advantage to augmentin like this and some of the added weight could be offset by combining the system with a method of shock absorption like running on jumping stilts. It doesn't offload joints but as a soldier I used to distance run on pavement with boots and a flak vest anyway.

Powerlifters have been pushing huge numbers with gear to assist for years using their normal joints. There are guys that bench press over 1000 lbs now.


The old surface [air] supplied, so-called "full dress" diving suits for working underwater provided similar assistance by allowing the suit to inflate more (or less) to adjust buoyancy when lifting or otherwise exerting force on underwater objects. The volume of air in the suit was regulated by using one's head to push a small spring loaded circular plate in the side of the helmet that opened a valve allowing excess air to escape from the helmet/suit. A skilled diver could even use this technique in mid-water to control his position. God help him, however if he accidently got inverted and was suddenly "blown up" to the surface.

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