Army Scientists Want to Teach Exoskeleton Gear How to Improve Soldier Performance



U.S. Army researchers are studying how to help intelligent exoskeleton technology adapt to human behavior to improve soldier performance on the future battlefield.

The service has tested exoskeleton equipment in the past, but soldiers faced challenges trying to adapt to the performance-enhancing technology.

A new Army Research Laboratory study is trying to uncover how human brain and muscle signals, along with movement profiles, can help soldiers and exoskeleton tech work more efficiently together, according to a service news release.

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“This will … improve our understanding of how humans adapt to intelligent systems. But also, these signals carry information that could be used to help train the [exoskeleton technology],” J. Cortney Bradford, a research scientist with U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development Command at the Army Research Laboratory, said in the release. “These signals could give the exoskeleton a better understanding of the human at any moment, so that it can make better decisions on how to assist the human.”

The study uses sensors to help Army researchers track and record the soldiers’ physical state as they interact with exoskeletons such as the Dephy ExoBoot, which is designed to give the wearer assistance at the ankle joint while performing challenging physical tasks such as walking with a heavily loaded rucksack.

The ExoBoot is not directly controlled by the user or any other human operator. It has an internal computer that must figure out on its own how and when to assist the person wearing the device, according to the release.

The device must determine whether the user is walking as opposed to running. Then, it has to determine where the user is in their walking pattern to appropriately time assistance — such as when the wearer’s gait changes because of fatigue, walking speed, load carriage or even terrain change, Bradford said in the release.

Researchers recruited 20 test subjects for this study, including a handful of soldiers.

“It is a great opportunity for information exchange between the bench scientists and soldiers,” Bradford said in the release. “We don’t get to interface with soldiers often and appreciate any insight they can provide.”

Researchers placed more than 40 reflective dots on various parts of participants’ bodies to measure how they moved, using the lab’s optical motion tracking system, according to the release. Researchers also attached 128 dual-layer electrodes on participants’ scalps using something that looks like a swim cap to measure brain signals.

Participants then walked on an instrumented treadmill for about an hour both with and without assistance from the ExoBoot for comparison, according to the release.

Researchers will analyze the data gathered for the next several months and present it at national conferences over the summer to get critical feedback on the next steps in the research process.

It will take the research team time to understand the neural signals recorded in this study because the ability to record brain activity in scenarios studied with the ExoBoot is still relatively novel, Bradford said.

“We don’t have much data to compare to it,” she said. “Our longer-term objective is to identify the critical biometrics and integrate them into the exoskeleton controls.”

— Matthew Cox can be reached at matthew.cox@military.com.

Related: Marines to Test Exoskeleton Suit That Can Do the Work of Up to 10 Troops

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