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Humans were born to run. Exoskeletons might make us better at it.
New research on ankle exoskeletons show promising results.
- New research from Stanford finds that motor-powered ankle exoskeletons conserve 15 percent of energy expenditure when running.
- Spring-powered exoskeletons without motors actually made running harder.
- The researchers hope to develop better spring-powered models moving forward.
Humans were born to run, as journalist and running fanatic Christopher McDougall phrased it. Bipedalism offers many advantages over quadrupeds, including the ability to better communicate over longer distances and improved cardiovascular skills. Humans are relatively lackluster over short distances; since our organs don't crash into our lungs when we run, as they do with quadrupeds, we are master marathoners.
There are still trade-offs. Thanks to our upright posture, we have weak necks—misbalances in our ankles and knees often lead to neck problems. Further down the chain, running can lead to chronic knee problems and labrum tears; I've suffered both while training for half-marathons. The impact force of repetitive striking can result in chronic lower back problems, especially if runners don't stretch and practice mobility routines. We expend a lot of energy when running; our body pays the toll.
Still, running is a natural activity that, according to McDougall, excite evolutionary senses of fear and pleasure deeply embedded in our biology. Too bad our anatomy doesn't always agree.
Researchers have long sought new means for alleviating energy output while running. A fascinating new study on exoskeleton emulators, published in the journal Science Robotics, might have gotten us one step closer.
When McDougall's book was published in 2009, more Americans were running. As the researchers (based at Stanford but including experts from Carnegie Mellon, Ghent University, and Nike) in this new study note, only 25 percent of Americans aged 18-29 reported running even once in 2018. Participation for adults aged 30-49 dropped 20 percent that year. They cite time commitments and negative associations to exercise as two leading causes. Given the high likelihood of injury due to running, it makes sense that there's hesitancy.
Stanford researchers find ankle exoskeleton makes running easier
Mindset matters. Running is a birthright and offers great cardiovascular conditioning. Yet there has to be some excitement around it. As McDougall writes, "if you thought [running] was only a means to an end—an investment in becoming faster, skinnier, richer—then why stick with it if you weren't getting enough quo for your quid?"
You have to love running to dedicate yourself to it. If you're in pain, that's a tall order.
The researchers tested two modes of running assistance: motor-powered and spring-based exoskeletons. An exoskeleton is an external skeleton that supports an animal's body, such as insects and mollusks. In human terms, they are expensive devices designed to slow down fatigue. In this study, ankle exoskeletons were tethered to motors as volunteers ran on a treadmill.
Eleven competitive runners were divided into three groups: an "optimized power" group, the motor-based cohort that boosted the runners' strides; "optimized spring-like," the group wearing the exoskeleton sans motor power; and the control group, "zero torque mode," runners wearing an exoskeleton with none of the features initiated. A final control element was runners wearing a neutral running shoe with no exoskeleton.
Optimized spring-like and Optimized powered assistance resulted in metabolic reductions of 2.1 and 24.7%, respectively, compared with zero-torque mode, while running at 2.7 m s−1. Optimized powered assistance resulted in an improvement in running economy of 14.6% compared with running in normal shoes, whereas Optimized spring-like assistance resulted in an 11.1% increase in the energy cost of running. Error bars indicate SD. *P < 0.05.
Kirby A. Witte, et al.
The motors are an important component. Wearing an exoskeleton with the motor switched off actually increased physical demand by 13 percent. With the motors purring, the demand was 15 percent less than when running without an exoskeleton.
Spring-based exoskeletons did not fare nearly as well, as it increased energy output by 11 percent than running without the gear. Stanford's Steve Collins, lead author of the paper, was surprised by this result, noting,
"When people run, their legs behave a lot like a spring, so we were very surprised that spring-like assistance was not effective. We all have an intuition about how we run or walk but even leading scientists are still discovering how the human body allows us to move efficiently."
(A) Exoskeleton emulator testbed. A participant runs on a treadmill while wearing bilateral ankle exoskeletons actuated by motors located off-board with mechanical power transmitted through flexible Bowden cables. (B) Ankle exoskeleton. The ankle exoskeleton attaches to the user by a strap above the calf, a rope through the heel of the shoe, and a carbon fiber plate embedded in the toe of the shoe. The inner Bowden cable terminates on a 3D printed titanium heel spur that is instrumented with strain gauges for direct measurement of applied torque. A magnetic encoder measures ankle angle. (C) Participant running on the treadmill with bilateral ankle exoskeletons. Metabolic data are collected through a respiratory system by measuring the oxygen and carbon dioxide content of the participant's expired gasses.
Kirby A. Witte, et al.
On the plus side, spring-based exoskeletons are much cheaper than motor-based models. The researchers are hoping to design a more energy-efficient model. Motor-powered models work great when tethered to treadmills but are unrealistic for road and trail runners, so an affordable spring-based version would be a boon for outdoor runners.
Spring-based exoskeletons mimic the natural spring of running. As with our normal running pattern, it stores energy only to unleash it when pushing off from the toes. With the help of a motor, the foot is able to extend at the ankle at the end of the step. Not quite Iron Man, but as Stanford graduate student Delaney Miller says of these trials,
"Powered assistance took off a lot of the energy burden of the calf muscles. It was very springy and very bouncy compared to normal running. Speaking from experience, that feels really good. When the device is providing that assistance, you feel like you could run forever."
Collins says this is one of the biggest improvements in energy economy ever made in running. It will likely not affect pro marathoners that much, but for novice runners or those susceptible to injury, it could ease the pain and remove a few seconds from your mile time.
Yes, humans were born to run. As it turns out, some of us just do it a little better with assistance. If consumer-priced exoskeletons hit the market, the statistics on running enthusiasts might swing in an upward direction. If the result is decreased energy expenditure, which by extension lowers the risk of injury, it's a win for all of us bipeds.
- 10 Ways Technology Will Transform the Human Body in the next ... ›
- Springy Ankle Device Improves Walking Efficiency 7% - Big Think ›
Innovation in manufacturing has crawled since the 1950s. That's about to speed up.
Here's why you might eat greenhouse gases in the future.
- The company's protein powder, "Solein," is similar in form and taste to wheat flour.
- Based on a concept developed by NASA, the product has wide potential as a carbon-neutral source of protein.
- The man-made "meat" industry just got even more interesting.
Seriously sustainable<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8xOTk0MDIzNS9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYyMjM4NTMzMX0.BCEfYnn6C3z1zUHIS38xOWjXktgamNBi5iyqklSMYK8/img.png?width=980" id="ea524" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="50533380eeb18eb5833b6b6aa3abec38" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Image source: Solar Foods<p>Solar Foods makes Solein by extracting CO₂ from air using <a href="https://www.fastcompany.com/90356326/we-have-the-tech-to-suck-co2-from-the-air-but-can-it-suck-enough-to-make-a-difference" target="_blank">carbon-capture technology</a>, and then combines it with water, nutrients and vitamins, using 100 percent renewable solar energy from partner <a href="https://www.fortum.com" target="_blank">Fortum</a> to promote a natural fermentation process similar to the one that produces yeast and lactic acid bacteria.</p><p>When the company claims its single-celled protein is "free from agricultural limitations," they're not kidding. Being produced indoors means Solar Foods is not dependent on arable land, water (i.e., rain), or favorable weather.</p><p>The company is already working with the European Space Agency to develop foods for off-planet production and consumption. (The idea for Solein actually began at NASA.) They also see potential in bringing protein production to areas whose climate or ground conditions make conventional agriculture impossible.</p><p>And let's not forget all those <a href="https://www.bk.com/menu-item/impossible-whopper" target="_blank">beef-free burgers</a> based on pea and soy proteins currently gaining popularity. The environmental challenge of scaling up the supply of those plants to meet their high demand may provide an opening for the completely renewable Solein — the company could provide companies that produce animal-free "meats," such as <a href="https://www.beyondmeat.com/products/" target="_blank">Beyond Meat</a> and <a href="https://impossiblefoods.com" target="_blank">Impossible Foods</a>, a way to further reduce their environmental impact.</p>
The larger promise<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8xOTk0MDI0MS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY1NjU4MTg2OX0.7dZZYT5WEV_EupBuLVFwHynarTiz8RYR9aJtC6Ts2C4/img.jpg?width=980" id="3415d" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="2e6eebe06d795f844752f9e9d30040d7" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Image source: Solar Foods<p>The impact of the beef — and for that matter, poultry, pork, and fish — industries on our planet is widely recognized as one of the main drivers behind climate change, pollution, habitat loss, and antibiotic-resistant illness. From the cutting down of rainforests for cattle-grazing land, to runoff from factory farming of livestock and plants, to the disruption of the marine food chain, to the overuse of antibiotics in food animals, it's been disastrous.</p><p>The advent of a promising source of protein derived from two of the most renewable things we have, CO₂ and sunlight, <a href="https://solarfoods.fi/environmental-impact/" target="_blank">gets us out of the planet-destruction business</a> at the same time as it offers the promise of a stable, long-term solution to one of the world's most fundamental nutritional needs.</p>
Solar Foods' timetable<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8xOTk0MTEzMS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTU5OTU1OTMwMn0.wnXh56iO_77x2XKV2uIPf78BKw4AJLUpmiyq_JBVGvo/img.jpg?width=1245&coordinates=172%2C146%2C62%2C135&height=700" id="0297c" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="125c9a98ec818f5c241fa28ef1423e67" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Image source: Lubsan / Shutterstock / Big Think<p>While company plans are always moderated by unforeseen events — including the availability of sufficient funding — Solar Foods plans a global commercial rollout for Solein in 2021 and to be producing two million meals annually, with a revenue of $800 million to $1.2 billion by 2023. By 2050, they hope to be providing sustenance to 9 billion people as part of a $500 billion protein market.</p><p>The project began in 2018, and this year, they anticipate achieving three things: Launching Solein (check), beginning the approval process certifying its safety as a Novel Food in the EU, and publishing plans for a 1,000-metric ton-per-year factory capable of producing 500 million meals annually.</p>
The protein powder Solein. Image source: SOLAR FOODS
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