Steve Collins / Carnegie Mellon University

Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University have developed a way to tune an exoskeleton to a person's unique body structure and movements, allowing them to spend significantly less energy while walking in the device.

Why it's needed: Exoskeletons promise to help people lift heavy objects or run farther but so far have been one-size-fits-all, an approach that can require users to expend more energy as the body adjusts, compensates and otherwise tries to make the prosthetic device work.

What they did: 11 people wearing ankle exoskeletons equipped with sensors walked on a treadmill while engineers measured how much energy they expended and algorithms gathered data about how each ankle rotated, and the timing of how it rose and fell during walking. The personalized exoskeletons were able to identify which ankle movements needed to be better supported so that the person could expend less energy as they walked. Overall, the volunteers in the study experienced a 24% reduction in the amount of energy they used during walking with the personalized exoskeletons around their ankles.

What's next: It will be awhile before we all have personalized exoskeletons, but this study shows how flexible materials combined with artificial intelligence systems can be used to tailor the devices. The next big advance will likely come from refined 3D printing that could be used to print customized systems.

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