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The U.S. Defense Department is spending millions to develop wearable tights that fit under trousers and could help ease the strain on soldiers who have to walk long distances and carry heavy loads.

Harvard University's Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering has received a contract from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to develop a kind of robot clothing it calls a Soft Exosuit. 

The DARPA money -- part of what could become a two-phase contract -- gives the Wyss Institute an opportunity to build upon earlier work that already demonstrated the viability of its new approach to designing wearable robot design and construction.

The Harvard team, led by Conor Walsh -- the founder of the Harvard Biodesign Lab -- studied the biomechanics of how people walk and then applied their new understanding to develop functional textiles, flexible power systems, soft sensors and controls that "enable intuitive and seamless human-machine interaction," according to The Harvard Gazette.

The idea of an exosuit is not new, but Walsh says his team's design is. Previous suits were heavy with battery packs and had rigid parts that hindered a person's naturally fluid joint movement. Wyss' Soft Exosuit is made of soft textiles woven into a piece of smart clothing that resembles tight leggings that can be easily worn under a military uniform.

Because of its flexibility, the suit mimics the movements of leg muscles and tendons and supports leg joints without restricting body movement.

The Exosuit is essentially a computer. In its current iteration, it includes a low-power microprocessor attached to a web of flexible strain sensors, which serve as the suit's "brain" and "nervous system," respectively. Among their responsibilities is constant monitoring of information about the suit's tension and the position of the host, whether walking, running, standing erect or crouching.

Don Ingber, director of the Wyss Institute, says the work of Conor's team "is a great example of the power of bringing together people from multiple disciplines with focused resources to translate what first seems like a dream into a product that could transform people's lives."

The Soft Exosuit could have uses beyond the military. Wyss researchers intend to collaborate with clinical partners to develop a medical version of the suit that could greatly benefit stroke victims, whose gait often becomes slow and inefficient.

 

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