Oct. 31, 2022 – Talk about a new step forward: Stanford engineers have created robotic boots that help you walk and run faster with less effort. The powered boots use artificial intelligence to provide a personalized boost that’s just right for whoever wears them.
Twenty years in the making, the boots represent the latest advancement in exoskeleton technology, wearable devices that work with the user to provide increased strength and endurance. A bit like a real Iron Man suit.
Technology like this could be used to help people with limited mobility, such as older adults or people with disabilities. The challenge, however, was figuring out how to tailor these devices to each person.
“It turns out that humans are, in some ways, very efficient walkers [providing] Support difficult,” says Dr. Patrick Slade, one of the researchers who worked on the boots. “Everyone walks differently, and what works in the lab often doesn’t translate to the real world.”
For example, some people need more thrust than others or a slower speed to stay stable.
That’s where AI comes in—specifically, a type of AI called machine learning, which uses algorithms to quickly process data and “learn” things. In this case, the boots use inexpensive sensors to learn how a person walks and then adjust based on that information.
The researchers call this “human-in-the-loop optimization”. The boots not only learn a person’s stride length and speed, but also their metabolic rate and energy expenditure. They also measure the movement and strength of the ankle.
The results: A person can walk 9% faster and uses 17% less energy while wearing it. That’s about the boost you’d expect when you take off a 30-pound backpack.
This is the largest improvement in walking performance of any exoskeleton to date, the researchers report in a Nature paper. And it’s about twice the effort of previous devices without machine learning.
The next steps will test the boots for those who need them most: older adults and those with mobility issues due to disabilities, Slade says.
But in the long term, boots like these could be offered to a wider audience, including athletes interested in performance training and workers who have to stand up for their work all day. For warehouse workers, for example, the boots could help relieve joint pain and muscle stiffness while making them more productive, Slade says.
And the benefits would go beyond helping a body move, potentially reducing the risk of falls, and improving quality of life and mental health, notes Carol Mack, physical therapy physician and owner of CLE Sports PT & Performance in Cleveland. While not part of this research, she is familiar with the challenges of geriatric rehab as well as those who are less mobile due to neurological issues.
“Exoskeletons are a promising new technology, and technology like this would not only help with walking speed,” she says. “It can also contribute to the kind of core and hip control needed to maintain balance. That could lead to more confidence for people with reduced mobility, and that’s a huge development.”