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J Appl Physiol (1985). 2009 Sep;107(3):670-8. doi: 10.1152/japplphysiol.91609.2008. Epub 2009 May 7.

Leg exoskeleton reduces the metabolic cost of human hopping.

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Media Laboratory, Biomechatronics Group, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02139, USA.

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During bouncing gaits such as hopping and running, leg muscles generate force to enable elastic energy storage and return primarily from tendons and, thus, demand metabolic energy. In an effort to reduce metabolic demand, we designed two elastic leg exoskeletons that act in parallel with the wearer's legs; one exoskeleton consisted of a multiple leaf (MLE) and the other of a single leaf (SLE) set of fiberglass springs. We hypothesized that hoppers, hopping on both legs, would adjust their leg stiffness while wearing an exoskeleton so that the combination of the hopper and exoskeleton would behave as a linear spring-mass system with the same total stiffness as during normal hopping. We also hypothesized that decreased leg force generation while wearing an exoskeleton would reduce the metabolic power required for hopping. Nine subjects hopped in place at 2.0, 2.2, 2.4, and 2.6 Hz with and without an exoskeleton while we measured ground reaction forces, exoskeletal compression, and metabolic rates. While wearing an exoskeleton, hoppers adjusted their leg stiffness to maintain linear spring-mass mechanics and a total stiffness similar to normal hopping. Without accounting for the added weight of each exoskeleton, wearing the MLE reduced net metabolic power by an average of 6% and wearing the SLE reduced net metabolic power by an average of 24% compared with hopping normally at frequencies between 2.0 and 2.6 Hz. Thus, when hoppers used external parallel springs, they likely decreased the mechanical work performed by the legs and substantially reduced metabolic demand compared with hopping without wearing an exoskeleton.

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