'Robot shoes' may help humans walk as they age

Posted at 2:30 PM, Nov 16, 2022

Robotic-looking sneakers could help humans walk in the future.

Stanford University engineering researchers have developed a portable ankle exoskeleton. The motorized gadget attaches to shoes and puts a literal spring in the wearer's step. A pressure sensor in the boot knows when to add a boost as the foot pushes off the ground.

"As my heel hits the ground, the device applies torque to help with push-off, and it applies torque until my toe leaves the ground, and then it cuts off assistance," said Patrick Slade, a post-doctorate fellow. "It makes it easier to walk and allows you to increase your walking speed."

The "Exo" saves the amount of energy it would take to carry a 20 to 30-pound backpack. It also adjusts and personalizes to the human wearing it.

Slade and Stanford assistant professor Steve Collins worked on the project.

"It tunes slowly over time as you move just in your normal daily life and figures those things out," Slade said.

"We call it human-in-the-loop optimization to try to automatically tune the characteristics of device to the user to make walking easier for them," Collins said.

The need for exoskeletons is only expected to grow. They have helped in various settings — from increasing strength for military airmen loading cargo, to aiding amputees with prosthetics, to assisting patients in physical therapy.

Bones, muscles and joints all undergo physiological changes as humans age, and that can lead to mobility issues. The latest research shows that's only becoming more and more common. About 35% of individuals over the age of 70 report some sort of mobility issue.

"They face many challenges in terms of slowing down and not being able to get upstairs and fatigue," Slade said.

For those wanting to get shoes, it might take a little time.

"This technology is really close, I think, to being commercialized," Collins said. "The first population with mobility impairment that we'll be able to help are older adults, healthy older adults, who are just experiencing mobility decline as a result of aging. We have some preliminary data that say the same technique is going to work really well for them, which is exciting."

Collins expects in the next five years similar personalized portable exoskeletons will aid balance, which could help prevent falls.

He says these are a promising step in that direction.

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