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These exoskeleton heels could help stroke victims walk again

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It isn't quite the soft exosuit that DARPA's working on, but scientists have developed a lightweight exoskeleton that'll take some of the work out of walking. Before you get too excited though, this is less Edge of Tomorrow and more along the lines of mechanical engineering. Researchers from Carnegie Mellon and North Carolina State University devised a way to use springs and ratchets to fashion a sort of boot that increases walking efficiency by seven percent compared to folks wearing regular shoes. The idea is to make it easier for the disabled, paralyzed or stroke victims to improve their walking ability without expensive motors and battery packs.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the passive setup draws inspiration from our existing musculature system. Specifically, the Achilles tendon, ankle and calf. It uses a mechanical clutch (in parallel with calf muscles) that engages a spring when the foot is on the ground and then releases in the air for freedom of motion. All that to say, it requires less energy to walk with these than otherwise.

The efficiency bump has a few roadblocks for now according to a paper (PDF) published in Nature. Chiefly, it only applies at a normal walking speed and even then, only on level ground. More research is on deck, with plans to implement electronics that'd adjust when the springs would release and tailor the setup to individual walking styles or even graded terrain. The ultimate goal? That'd be extending active years for the elderly. The researchers hope to partner with a sportswear company and sell a commercial version that'd cost less than a pair of ski boots, too. In case you're curious as to how it all works, that's what the video below is for.

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