October 31, 2022 – Talk about a new step forward: Stanford engineers have developed robotic shoes that help you walk faster with less effort. Equipped with a motor, the shoes use artificial intelligence to provide a personalized boost to the wearer.
Twenty years in the making, the shoes represent the latest advances in exoskeleton technology, wearable devices that work with the user to provide greater strength and endurance. Kind of like a realistic Iron Man suit.
Such technology can be used to help people with limited mobility, such as the elderly or people with disabilities. But the challenge was figuring out how to customize these devices for each person.
“It turns out that humans walk very efficiently in a way that makes them do it [providing] Helping is difficult, says Patrick Slade, one of the researchers who worked on the shoes. “Everyone walks differently, and what works in the lab often doesn’t translate to the real world.”
For example, some people need a boost more than others, or a slower pace to help keep them stable.
That’s where AI comes in – in particular, a type of AI called machine learning that uses algorithms to quickly process data and “learn” things. In this case, the shoes use low-cost sensors to learn how a person is walking and then adjust based on that information.
Researchers call it “human optimization in the loop.” The shoe learns not only the length and speed of a person’s steps, but also their metabolic rate and energy use. They also measure ankle movement and strength.
Results: A person can walk 9% faster and expend 17% less energy wearing them. That’s roughly the boost you’d expect from taking off a 30-pound backpack.
Researchers report that this is the largest improvement in walking performance of any exoskeleton to date temper nature paper. It represents twice the effort reduction of earlier devices without machine learning.
Next steps will include testing the shoes for those who need them most: the elderly and those with mobility problems due to a disability, Slade says.
But in the long run, shoes like these could be offered to a wider audience, including athletes interested in performance training and workers who need to stand all day for their jobs. Among warehouse workers, for example, shoes can help relieve joint pain and muscle stiffness while making them more productive, says Slade.
The benefits will go beyond helping the body move, which may reduce the risk of falls and improve quality of life and mental health, notes Carol Mack, M.D., a physical therapist and owner of CLE Sports PT & Performance in Cleveland. Although she was not part of this research, she is well versed in the challenges of rehabilitating the elderly, as well as those who are less mobile due to neurological problems.
She says, “Exoskeletons hold promise as a new technology, and technology like this will not only help with walking speed. It may also contribute to the kind of core and hip control needed to maintain balance. This can lead to more confidence for those with a mobility impairment, and that’s a development colossal.”