Stanford’s robotic boot gives wearers a personalized mobility boost

Some of the most exciting robotics breakthroughs are happening in the exoskeleton space. Sure, any robotic system worth its salt has the potential to effect change, but this is one of the categories where such changes can be immediately felt — specifically, it’s about improving the lives of people with limited mobility.

A team out of Stanford’s Biomechatronics Laboratory just published the results of years-long research into the category in Nature. The project began life — as these things often do — through simulations and laboratory work. The extent of the robot boot’s real-world testing has thus far been limited to treadmills. The researchers behind it, however, at readying it for life beyond the lab doors.

“This exoskeleton personalizes assistance as people walk normally through the real world,” lab head Steve Collins said in a release. “And it resulted in exceptional improvements in walking speed and energy economy.”

The principle behind the boot is similar to what drives a number of these systems. Rather than attempting to walk for the wearer, it provides assistance, lowering some of the resistance and friction that come with mobility impairments. Where the lab says their approach differs, however, is in the machine learning models it uses to “personalize” the push it gives to the calf muscle.

Image Credits: Kurt Hickman

The researchers liken the assistance to removing a “30-pound backpack” from the user. Collins adds:

Optimized assistance allowed people to walk 9% faster with 17% less energy expended per distance traveled, compared to walking in normal shoes. These are the largest improvements in the speed and energy of economy walking of any exoskeleton to date. In direct comparisons on a treadmill, our exoskeleton provides about twice the reduction in effort of previous devices.

Those kinds of numbers are delivered, in part, from the emulators that provide the foundation for much of the research. The boot is the culmination of around 20 years of research at the lab, and now the team is working to commercialize the project, with plans to bring it to market in “the next few years.” They’re also developing variations on the hardware to help improve balance and reduce joint pain.