Scientists have made robotic shorts that make walking and running easier

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I like to run. No, let me rephrase that, I have a running problem. Whereas most people get a thrill out of running a decent 5km at a Saturday park run, I tend to get a thrill out of pushing my body to breaking-point in marathons and ultramarathons.  There is something about that long time on the open road, being outdoors and feeling of accomplishment as you push through exhaustion that is quite rewarding and keeps me coming back for more punishment.

However even I will admit that after passing a certain distance that running becomes unduly tough and painful and the subsequent enjoyment levels versus pain threshold make it a lot more exhausting than fun. Which I guess I why people with less of a penchant for pain have developed a new powered exosuit – or more appropriate robotic aided shorts – to make walking and running a whole lot easier.

Harvard University researchers have developed this new exosuit which they claim makes you feel as much as 5 kilograms lighter when walking or running. Scientific American reports that the system, which is built around a pair of flexible shorts and motor worn on the lower back is powered by a waist-mounted battery that is said to last 8 kilometres. they suggest it could benefit anyone who has to cover large distances by foot, including recreational hikers, military personnel, rescue workers and people looking to cheat in ultramarathons (note Athletic South Africa – this is not me).

According to the researchers, who have published their findings in the journal Science, this system differs from previous exosuits because it’s able to make it easier to both walk and run. The challenge is that your legs work very differently depending on whether you’re walking or running. When walking, the team says your centre of mass moves like an “inverted pendulum,” while running causes it to move like a “spring-mass system.” The system needs to be able to accommodate both and sense when the wearer’s gait changes.

It is certainly an interesting concept and a sign of things to come for the future where our clothes and outfits could control as much of our movement as our muscles and bring the sci-fi world of Hobbs and Shaw closer to reality. Personally, I still prefer to keep moving my body the old-fashioned way, but for a lot of disabled people out there, this could certainly prove to be lifesaving, along with the many other practical benefits it could give to other professions.

I’m just waiting for the shorts that can make me jump further or fall from high altitudes safely so that I can feel like a superhero. That is the kind of clothing I can get behind. That and clothing that can wash and iron itself. But I guess we need to take baby steps for now.

Last Updated: August 21, 2019

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