Research ArticleEXOSKELETONS

Improving the energy economy of human running with powered and unpowered ankle exoskeleton assistance

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Science Robotics  25 Mar 2020:
Vol. 5, Issue 40, eaay9108
DOI: 10.1126/scirobotics.aay9108


Exoskeletons that reduce energetic cost could make recreational running more enjoyable and improve running performance. Although there are many ways to assist runners, the best approaches remain unclear. In our study, we used a tethered ankle exoskeleton emulator to optimize both powered and spring-like exoskeleton characteristics while participants ran on a treadmill. We expected powered conditions to provide large improvements in energy economy and for spring-like patterns to provide smaller benefits achievable with simpler devices. We used human-in-the-loop optimization to attempt to identify the best exoskeleton characteristics for each device type and individual user, allowing for a well-controlled comparison. We found that optimized powered assistance improved energy economy by 24.7 ± 6.9% compared with zero torque and 14.6 ± 7.7% compared with running in normal shoes. Optimized powered torque patterns for individuals varied substantially, but all resulted in relatively high mechanical work input (0.36 ± 0.09 joule kilogram−1 per step) and late timing of peak torque (75.7 ± 5.0% stance). Unexpectedly, spring-like assistance was ineffective, improving energy economy by only 2.1 ± 2.4% compared with zero torque and increasing metabolic rate by 11.1 ± 2.8% compared with control shoes. The energy savings we observed imply that running velocity could be increased by as much as 10% with no added effort for the user and could influence the design of future products.

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