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Wyss Institute Robotic Suit Wins $2.9 Million Contract

By Jessica A. Barzilay, Crimson Staff Writer

Harvard researchers are one step closer to completing a robotic suit designed to help soldiers travel farther, conserve energy, and shoulder heavy loads with less strain.

The Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard revealed Thursday that it had received a contract for $2.9 million from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency to continue its work on the “Soft Exosuit,” a wearable robot that facilitates ambulation.

“We’re trying to take an entirely new approach to how we design and fabricate wearable robots,” said Conor J. Walsh, the project lead and assistant professor of mechanical and biomedical engineering.

Predecessors in the wearable robot field have traditionally worked on “exoskeletons,” but Walsh and his team refer to their product as an “exosuit,” a soft garment that can fit under clothing.

Walsh began to assemble the team to develop the soft exosuit two years ago, shortly after DARPA launched its Warrior Web program, the branch that then provided the first round of funding for the Harvard researchers working on the project.

“We began with the question, ‘Can you make a robot soft enough and apply enough support that it has a positive effect on a person’s mobility?’” Walsh said.

While DARPA primarily intended the suit to benefit the military by reducing muscle and tendon injuries among equipment-carrying soldiers, it also anticipates that the product may eventually provide other medical and rehabilitation services, Walsh said. Down the line, the suit’s design could aid firefighters and hikers as well as soldiers, and it could also improve or enable mobility for veterans, stroke victims, and others with impaired ambulatory abilities.

“A surprisingly large number of the U.S. population finds it very hard to walk,” Walsh said. “Those people are restricted to their homes, and their healthcare deteriorates rapidly.”

As a result of this condition, technology that restores mobility could confer enormous benefits on the health of the population at large, he said.

Given the wearable robot’s broad range of applications, assembling a team has provided its own set of challenges. The multidisciplinary nature of the work has brought together experts in the biomechanics of walking, engineers versed in robot design, and even apparel professionals from the Boston branch of New Balance.

The exosuit, which can be put on like a pair of pants, works to facilitate the body’s movement in subtle but precise ways, easing the burden on each muscle.

“We wanted to make sure we were not working against the body, but working with the body,” said Ishan Chatterjee ’16, an electrical engineering concentrator, who assisted with the engineering of motion sensors in the feet and legs of the suit.

“When you think about something you wear, you think of something that keeps you warm or something fashionable,” Walsh said. “But these textiles actually have a key function that’s critical to the robot’s operation.”

The development of a structured, functional textile has posed one of the project’s greatest obstacles, Walsh said. Over the next 15 months, Walsh and his team will continue to optimize the product and increase its efficiency, with prototypes being tested in the military this fall.

—Staff writer Jessica A. Barzilay can be reached at jessica.barzilay@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter@jessicabarzilay.

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