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Several years ago, the Washington Post had an article titled This remarkable new exoskeleton slips on like a boot and makes your walking more efficient.

Engineers at Carnegie Mellon University created this unpowered, effort-reducing ankle exoskeleton. The walking-assist clutch engages a spring in parallel with the Achilles tendon when the foot is on the ground, offloading the calf muscles and making walking easier. (Lisa Lau and Steve Collins/Carnegie Mellon University)

The latest exoskeleton technology doesn't need an outside power source to boost your strength. It harnesses the power of your own muscles to put a spring in your step instead. And soon baby boomers could be using it to keep hiking and jogging just a few years longer.

As of the end of 2015, this device reduced the energy required for a healthy person to walk on a flat surface by 7%. See the line under the picture at Greg Sawicki on Successfully Reducing Walking Metabolic Cost. If you choose to watch the video, which is heavy on the physics and engineering of the device, it is only the last six minutes or so that discuss the benefits for healthy people; the first 35 minutes or so discuss the benefits for stroke victims.

How much has work progressed on this or similar devices since 2015? Is there any projection as to when ordinary consumers might be able to order a pair at a cost commensurate with other high-end sporting-goods items, e.g., a pair of high performance skis? Has any TGO user tried one in the lab or in the field?

Footnote: Note that exoskeletons are in development for the army and to aid paralyzed people to walk, but, important and life-changing as these developments are, this is not what this question is about. See, for example this story in the Washington Post about a woman paralyzed from the waist down who is walking the Appalachian Trail with an exoskeleton costing tens of thousands of dollars.

  • I can't find anything new about those boots, especially not on the consumer front. There is a similar-looking product currently available for skiers. I didn't want to write an answer based on that, though, because it wasn't your question. If you want to ask a different question, I could try it. Hi ab2! I don't know how the prices would compare to regular gear, but we're not really supposed to discuss prices anyway. I could lead you to a page with prices on it (they're in pounds). I definitely don't have experience, so I couldn't help you there! – Sue Apr 22 '17 at 22:04
  • @Sue I think these are still in development. I don't think they are on the market yet. I just wanted to know if they were progressing, and if so, how fast. When they hit the consumer market, I think they will be the order of $1,000. Why not ask and answer the skier question yourself? – ab2 Apr 23 '17 at 1:01
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    Was the article published on April 1st, by any chance? I don't really see the rationale WRT baby boomers, since from what I've seen, people who stop hiking, running, &c generally do so long before physical deterioration becomes an issue. Indeed, it seems that often the stopping contributes to the deterioration. – jamesqf Apr 23 '17 at 18:02
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    @jamesqf Ah, a skeptical mind! The entire April 1 issue of the Washington Post was published on April 1. However, there are other articles about this work, including this one in Nature, another Nature article and the associated Editorial in Nature. – ab2 Apr 23 '17 at 18:18
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    @jamesqf See also Successfully Reducing Metabolic Walking Cost. Most of the video presentation is about helping stroke victims; the last 6 min or so is about augmenting performance in healthy people. Even if you continue to hike and backpack, age will take a toll on your performance eventually. (If you don't believe this now, you will in 30 years.) This gizmo purports to hold out promise for compensating for inevitable age-deterioration (as well as making your backpack feel lighter even in your peak years.) But there seems to be a long way to go. – ab2 Apr 23 '17 at 19:33
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It's always risky to make this sort of predictions, I have no insider knowledge on the industry and I think this is going to depend heavily on your budget, but I'd spitball it at twenty years for the first ones being widely commercially available, minus ten or plus another twenty years.

Yes, that is a huge range to wild guess at. But for comparison: it took us 13 years, 2001 to 2014, to get from the Segway to the Hoverboard, and that's just making the balancing work well enough that you can to without the big stick.

Several countries are doing some careful field testing of military models right around now I think. If they end up rolling it out widely this is by no means a guarantee that the technology will come to the civilian market, but if it does it should be around 10 years behind large scale military deployment.

Passive unpowered exoskeletons solve one of the great problems exoskeletons generally have: battery life. In return the advantages they offer are a lot smaller as well. The key deciding factor is going to be when the potential market willing to shell out for the limited advantages becomes big enough to pay for the complex engineering going into them. The good news is that a lot of the research has already been done, the engineering will keep slowly getting comparatively less complicated and the market is growing. There's a wave of people reaching the age where they start getting serious trouble walking, and compared to previous generations they're on average relatively well off financially. And then there's patents. If someone found the key technology to this concept today they'd have twenty years to monetize it. Given that people love money, the right patent in the right hands could make everything happen very fast, making a deployment ten years from now realistic.

Eventually the price should stabilize somewhere around the cost of a new scooter (or an electric scooter for powered versions, whichever ends up winning). The skeleton has more weird moving parts and needs to get more strength out of less material, but it does require less material and no power. So maybe it will even go as low as a bicycle at some point. For the first five or ten years after coming out they're going to be considerably more expensive though.

There is always the option of "never", but I'd say that if these things are going to happen, they're going to happen relatively soon. If not then either the technology didn't work after all or we found something better.

So for the next ten to forty years, I think we need to make do with bicycles, with all the cons and pros they carry. But there are realistic reasons for optimism.

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