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The exoskeleton in MIT's closet

The contraption from the Biomechatronics Group carries the better part of an 80-pound load, but you'll walk funny.

The 21st-century beast of burden could be you--if the exoskeleton fits.

It would work something like this, according to researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology: Rather than simply strap on a backpack, you'd step into a pair of boots that are connected to the backpack by metal tubes and joints and springs and "a damping device," strap the tubes to your legs and flip on a small external power source.

MIT exoskeleton
Samuel Au

It sounds like a lot of work, at least to get started, but the MIT exoskeleton can handle 80 percent of an 80-pound load. I'm no engineer, but that would seem to leave you hefting just 16 pounds out of that overstuffed backpack. Not bad--of course, you have to learn to do the exoskeleton shuffle. The researchers, from the Biomechatronics Group at MIT's Media Lab, say you'll walk funny.

"You can definitely tell it's affecting your gait," Conor Walsh, a graduate student who worked on the project, said in MIT's write-up on the contraption. (That's Walsh in the picture, decked out with exoskeleton and backpack.)

And that means you may run out of breath sooner. In tests, the researchers found that the exoskeleton wearer, in compensating for the change of gait, had to consume 10 percent more oxygen than normal.

But it does ease the strain on the back.

When the kinks eventually get ironed out--the MIT team is aiming for a more normal walking motion--the resulting "assistive leg devices" could help ease the ergonomic stress for soldiers and others who have to carry heavy loads or, presumably without the weighty backpack, run without breathing hard.

If the concept sounds familiar, you're probably thinking of stories about Bleex--the Berkeley Lower Extremity Exoskeleton--from a few years back. That wearable-tech project at the University of California, Berkeley, made a 70-pound load feel like just 5 pounds. The big tradeoff there was that the Bleex frame itself weighed 100 pounds, part of which came from an engine used to help drive the legs and power a computer.

The MIT researchers didn't let on how much their exoskeleton weighs, but did say that it included "a very small external power input (one watt)."