Conor Walsh, 33
This robotics researcher might have something in just your size.
Most robotics labs don’t contain sewing machines. But there’s a room full of them in Conor Walsh’s lab, along with three full-time textile experts and a wall of fabrics in neat plastic bins. There’s a rack that looks as if it belongs in a sporting goods store, with a row of what could be some new kind of running shorts in an array of sizes.
For Walsh, a robot is not necessarily a rigid metal machine. He’s working on robots that are soft, lightweight, and flexible so people can wear them to enhance their abilities.
The running shorts are part of an exosuit for the legs. Sensors in the suit measure a person’s movement and then tell a motor to pull on cables attached to the fabric in order to assist the muscles at the right moment. The exosuit could support soldiers as they walk, to increase their endurance. Or it could help patients who have trouble walking. “For people whose limbs don’t work very well, there’s really no good technologies that exist today,” says Walsh, a faculty member at Harvard and its Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering. In a video of one trial, a stroke patient walks visibly faster, and with a more symmetrical gait, when the robot is turned on.
Using fabric and cables keeps the exosuit lightweight. But the suit also needs to fit just right, so it can apply forces to the body without restricting movement. “The textile component is probably the most critical,” says Walsh. Hence the sewing machines.
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