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A wearable muscle

Hope for people with a walking disability: researchers at the Sensory-Motor Systems laboratory at ETH Zurich have developed a high-tech suit that helps people with mobility impairments walk again.

Text: Clau Isenring

Lorenz Schwärzler, 51, seriously injured his spinal cord in an accident. Since then he’s had an incomplete spinal injury and for a long time suffered severe pain when walking. An exoskeleton developed at ETH Zurich has improved his quality of life. Thanks to the MyoSuit he can move his legs again without any pain. While prostheses replace missing limbs and restore lost bodily functions to a certain extent, exoskeletons support residual functionality. “The MyoSuit is a soft exoskeleton that functions as an artificial muscle integrated into the clothing”, says professor Robert Riener, who heads up the Sensory-Motor Systems laboratory at ETH Zurich. This textile exoskeleton can help people with paralysis and various muscle diseases to walk again. It also gives older people with weakened muscles new freedom of movement.

High-tech trousers

The commercial launch of this “wearable muscle” in various sizes is slated by ETH spin-off MyoSwiss for the end of 2019. “We haven’t priced the suit yet, but we don’t expect it to be too expensive”, says Riener.

“We haven’t priced the suit yet, but we don’t expect it to be too expensive.”

The suit looks like a mix between combat trousers with side pockets and a climbing harness. Inside it’s made up of fine cable pulls, sensitive sensors and a lot of computer technology. Energy supply and noise emissions are challenging issues but, most importantly, the high-tech device has to understand immediately what the wearer wants. Does he want to stand up or sit down, climb stairs or remain standing? Despite the built-in technology, the trousers are soft and comfortable to wear, because they only have fixed structures around the knees.

“We’re currently testing our textile exoskeleton in various clinical studies.”

Powered by electric motors

The “pilot” controls the trousers using buttons. Sensors report whether the user is sitting or standing and then support the corresponding movement such as “stand up” or “go”. Depending on the position of the legs, built-in electric motors provide power to facilitate the required movement. “We’re currently testing our textile exoskeleton in various clinical studies”, says Riener. Initially, the high-tech trousers will be used as a therapy device, but in a second step there are plans to launch the product to help people with mobility impairments perform everyday physical tasks such as getting up, standing, walking and climbing stairs.