Life Imitates Art

Mechanical trousers will help turn mountains into molehills (Times: May 12, 2016)An article by Tom Whipple in The Times today (May 12, 2016) reports on a set of powered trousers designed by Panizollo et al. and described in an article published today by the Journal of Neuroengineering and Rehabilitation:A biologically-inspired multi-joint soft exosuit that can reduce the energy cost of loaded walking“.

The authors conclude:

Our results demonstrate that an autonomous soft exosuit can reduce the metabolic burden experienced by load carriers, possibly augmenting their overall gait performance.

The overall reduction in work associated with walking is around seven per cent—”something you can just about feel”, according to one of the authors (Walsh), quoted in The Times. That’s in line with previous studies of other devices, which the authors mention in the Discussion section of their paper (my link takes you to the full-text, Open Access article).

Whipple sees an application to hillwalking:

It will be just enough, in other words, that you can turn up at your local Ramblers’ Association and make the other walkers feel inadequate, without also making them suspicious.

All this is very gratifying to me, since I invented the device (fictionally, at least) a good 23 years ago, when I wrote a story entitled “Lachlan and the Bionic Long-Johns”, in which my hero Lachlan McLoughlin takes on various hill challenges while wearing something rather similar. My version worked rather better (that’s the joy of fiction, of course), and you can see it in action in Chris Tyler‘s lovely cartoon on the rear cover of my (long out-of-print) book Munro’s Fables (TACit Press, 1993):Rear cover of Munro's Fables(You can nowadays find the story in the e-book The Complete Lachlan or the paperback The Complete Lachlan & Walking Types.)

I can’t really claim all the credit, though. The idea of a powered exoskeleton has been around since at least 1959, when Robert Heinlein described a full-body version in his novel Starship Troopers.

3 thoughts on “Life Imitates Art”

  1. There surely is a version of the exoskeleton suit for mobility impaired persons whose quadro replaced joints are not as good as the originals . I’d like one in dark blue !

    1. Yes, there have been powered exoskeletons around for ten years or more. As Heinlein predicted, the initial finance came from the military. Soldiers carry a load of gear, and there was a lot of interest in something that could help them carry that load farther and faster. It spun off into medical applications: in 2012 a paraplegic woman called Claire Lomas walked the whole London Marathon route wearing a powered exoskeleton, and in 2014 the FDA approved an exoskeleton called ReWalk to improve or restore mobility for people with spinal cord injuries. It’s a coming thing, and I think it’s a sign of how commonplace these devices are becoming that the Times article felt able to riff on the idea of using them for hillwalking.
      I’m still ahead of the curve, though – my imaginary kit stores energy on the way down the hill (making descent easier), and then powers you back up the next hill.

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