When engineers timed the people wearing the newly designed pair-controlled ankle brackets, they were thrilled to see a 15% increase in walking speed.
But these were just baby steps compared to what they would find later.
Engineers at Stanford University took his prototype and tested it with a larger group of people. a study funded by the US National Science Foundation. Systems similar to theirs are designed to move the entire leg, but their strap attaches around the cane and is made into a running shoe to help move the ankles more efficiently. And when they tried it, this time with 10 healthy young adults, the participants ’walking speed improved by 42% compared to their usual pace.
“Seeing this kind of number is very exciting,” reflects Seungmoon Song, PhD. “And it makes us feel like we’re into something.”
In science fiction, a cyborg is a person aided by a mechanical or electronic device. And what they’re learning now, Song says, is that the ankle push is a very important part of the gait. But it remains a mystery as to how much energy is used in moving the ankle, compared to the oscillation of the legs, to move the whole body forward.
Historically, Leonardo da Vinci investigated the role of the ankle in human movement. He combined his interest in anatomy with his artistic ability to draw the structure of the foot and ankle with exquisite detail, which has helped shape science to this day.
By 2014, Stanford’s lab had already developed them first prototype adaptation to the ankle which helped set the course for the design of its latest version. Engineer Steven Collins, Ph.D., led the team that designed this device and his new approach gives them even more control over increasing people’s walking speed.
Other devices focus on knee support, but Song says he’s intrigued by what they find with the reinforced flexion and pull of the ankle, which seems to boost efficiency.
Don’t expect, though, that you can order it online soon. The prototype attaches to large motors that drag a rope and prevent the heel from coming off the ground, making it now non-portable. But it drives research forward, Song says, advancing on devices.
The next step for engineers will be to hire participants who have trouble walking, unlike the young, healthy people from their last test. Song suggests it would be particularly helpful to determine if a similar system could help older adults.
Walking speed is considered an important long-term health marker, along with other factors, such as strength of grip and balance, according to doctor of physiotherapy and personal trainer Carol Mack, DPT, CSCS.
“As we age, the speed of walking tends to be slower, just as it’s becoming more and more important to our health,” he explains.
Coaches can help seniors improve their ability to walk and help control coordination and strength, but new approaches, like the one being studied at Stanford, are important, Mack says. “It looks promising as a new technology and the increase in walking speed reported in this test is certainly remarkable.”
Most likely, the device will help those who have the kind of core and hip control that allows them to keep their balance, but only need help to walk faster. Mack says she is excited about the possibility that one day this may help her patients with mobility and neurological issues.
Until then, working at walking speed, especially as you get older, should be part of any combination of fitness, Mack suggests. Walking distance still matters, but when it comes to healthy aging, it helps to pick up the pace.