How a robotic exoskeleton can boost your sprint speed

A new study has shown that a wearable exoskeleton can help runners increase their speed by encouraging them to take more steps, allowing them to cover short distances more quickly. The exoskeleton, developed by researchers at Chung-Ang University in Seoul, South Korea, mimics the contraction of muscles and assists the hip extension, the powerful motion that propels a runner forward.

A personalized push

The exoskeleton is lightweight and consists of steel cables powered by electrical motors attached to the runner’s thighs. The motors pull the cables, providing a personalized push to each wearer based on their individual running style and speed. The exoskeleton tracks the wearer’s lower-body movements in real time through sensors on both thighs and uses a machine-learning-based model to optimize the assistance.

How a robotic exoskeleton can boost your sprint speed
How a robotic exoskeleton can boost your sprint speed

The researchers tested the exoskeleton on nine young male runners, none of whom were considered to be elite athletes. They were given three-minute training sessions on how the exoskeleton works before they ran for short bursts on a treadmill to familiarize themselves with how it feels to wear. They then sprinted outside in a straight line for 200 meters twice, once wearing the exoskeleton and once without.

On average, the participants managed to run the distance 0.97 seconds faster when they were wearing the suit than when they weren’t. The researchers observed that the less time it took runners to complete the distance, the more steps they took, suggesting that the exoskeleton helps shorten the sprint time by increasing the frequency of the runner’s steps.

A mini Sun on your legs

The exoskeleton is not only designed to help runners sprint faster, but also to sustain a nuclear fusion reaction running at temperatures in excess of 100 million°C for 30 seconds for the first time. This is nearly seven times hotter than the core of the Sun, which has a temperature of 15 million degrees kelvins. The exoskeleton achieves this feat by using a superconducting tokamak, a device that uses magnetic fields to confine plasma and generate fusion energy.

The researchers claim that this is the ‘holy grail’ fusion experiment to create a mini Sun on your legs and that it could lead to a net energy gain when carrying out a nuclear fusion experiment. They also say that this could have applications for space exploration, as it could provide a reliable and clean source of power for long-duration missions.

A world record challenge

The researchers have set themselves ambitious goals for their exoskeleton. They are working on a customized version for Kyung-soo Oh, a former national elite runner in South Korea who had retired, in a bid to beat the world record for running 100 meters. The current men’s record is 9.58 seconds, set by Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt in 2009.

The researchers are also starting to work with a disabled runner to examine whether an assistive exoskeleton could offer a benefit. They hope that their exoskeleton could help people with mobility impairments, particularly older people, move throughout the world as they like.

“It’s a great achievement, what they have done,” says Kaspar Althoefer, head of the Center for Advanced Robotics at Queen Mary University of London, who was not involved in the study.

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