This mechanical exoskeleton makes walking more efficient

For the first time, researchers can improve the way humans walk without using an external power source, according to a study published in Nature today. A boot-like exoskeleton that fits into a regular running shoe reduces the energetic costs of walking by about 7 percent. In short, it makes walking less tiring without resorting to a battery pack or a motor — something that could really come in handy for people who have trouble walking, or military personnel in remote areas. They improved human walking — without a power source.

"Our study shows that walking, a highly evolved human task, can be improved by manmade technology and engineering," says Gregory Sawicki, a co-author of the study and a physiologist at North Carolina State University. "That’s what’s so exciting for us."

A 7 percent reduction in the energy cost of walking isn’t entirely new: researchers have achieved similar gains in the past. In 2013, a group of researchers achieved a 6 percent reduction in energy costs thanks to an air compression system. Others have worked on exoskeletons that are powered by motors and battery packs. But the device that Sawicki and his team came up with doesn’t need any of that; it's unpowered. It makes walking less tiring by rerouting the energy that normally goes through your calf muscles and tendons into carbon fibre, metal — and a very basic spring.

"It’s sort of been a grand challenge in the field," Sawicki says. "All the way back to graduate school, we had our eyes on this — and whether or not this was even possible."

"It’s sort of been a grand challenge in the field."