US military funds soft exoskeleton for enhanced soldiers

The next generation of soldiers could have greater stamina and be less susceptible to injury thanks to a new lightweight lower-bodysuit awarded additional funding by the US military.

The researchers at Harvard University’s Wyss Institute behind the soft exoskeleton, which could also help disabled people to improve their mobility, last week received $2.9m (£1.8m) from government agency DARPA to continue its development.

The device, known as the Soft Exosuit, is intended to be worn comfortably under clothing and could enable soldiers to walk longer distances, become tired less easily, and minimise the risk of injury when carrying heavy loads.

A soldier’s personal equipment can weigh up to 50kg, which increases the risk of musculoskeletal injury, particularly in the ankles, knees, and lumbar spine. This load weight also causes an increase in physical fatigue, further decreasing the body’s ability to perform and protect against both acute and chronic injury.

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Mechanical systems have previously been developed to help soldiers cope with the demands of personal gear but the researchers say these traditional exoskeleton systems are heavier, more power-hungry and require battery packs and rigid components that can interfere with natural joint movement.

The new suit It is made of soft, functional textiles woven together into an item of clothing that mimics the action of the leg muscles and tendons when a person walks in order to provide assistance at the joints of the leg without restricting the wearer’s movement.

In the current prototype, a series of webbing straps positioned around the lower half of the body contain a low-power microprocessor and network of supple strain sensors that act as the “brain” and “nervous system” of the Soft Exosuit, respectively, continuously monitoring various data signals, including the suit tension and the position of the wearer.

The funding was awarded as part of the DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) Warrior Web programme to develop performance enhancing bodysuits.