Human running requires extensive training and conditioning for an individual to maintain high speeds (greater than 10mph) for an extended duration of time. Studies have shown that running at peak speeds generates a high metabolic cost due to the use of large muscle groups in the legs associated with the human gait cycle. Applying supplemental external and internal forces to the human body during the gait cycle has been shown to decrease the metabolic cost for walking, allowing individuals to carry additional weight and walk further distances. Significant research has been conducted to reduce the metabolic cost of walking, however, there are few if any documented studies that focus specifically on reducing the metabolic cost associated with high speed running. Three mechanical systems were designed to work in concert with the human user to decrease metabolic cost and increase the range and speeds at which a human can run.
The methods of design require a focus on mathematical modeling, simulations, and metabolic cost. Mathematical modeling and simulations are used to aid in the design process of robotic systems and metabolic testing is regarded as the final analysis process to determine the true effectiveness of robotic prototypes. Metabolic data, (VO2) is the volumetric consumption of oxygen, per minute, per unit mass (ml/min/kg). Metabolic testing consists of analyzing the oxygen consumption of a test subject while performing a task naturally and then comparing that data with analyzed oxygen consumption of the same task while using an assistive device.
Three devices were designed and tested to augment high speed running. The first device, AirLegs V1, is a mostly aluminum exoskeleton with two pneumatic linear actuators connecting from the lower back directly to the user's thighs, allowing the device to induce a torque on the leg by pushing and pulling on the user's thigh during running. The device also makes use of two smaller pneumatic linear actuators which drive cables connecting to small lever arms at the back of the heel, inducing a torque at the ankles. Device two, AirLegs V2, is also pneumatically powered but is considered to be a soft suit version of the first device. It uses cables to interface the forces created by actuators located vertically on the user's back. These cables then connect to the back of the user's knees resulting in greater flexibility and range of motion of the legs. Device three, a Jet Pack, produces an external force against the user's torso to propel a user forward and upward making it easier to run. Third party testing, pilot demonstrations and timed trials have demonstrated that all three of the devices effectively reduce the metabolic cost of running below that of natural running with no device.