This Robotic Backpack Takes the Load Off

Photo: Huazhong University of Science and Technology
Photo: Huazhong University of Science and Technology

As we enter the fall hiking season, we may find ourselves carrying the bare necessities in a heavy backpack: a sleeping bag, a can of bug spray, a small stove, or even a case of White Claw. Until now, you and your muscles would have to lug all this junk through the woods. Now a robot can help.

According to a study published in July titled “A Backpack Minimising the Vertical Acceleration of the Load Improves the Economy of Human Walking,” researchers at the Huazhong University of Science and Technology in Wuhan, China created a new robotic system that reduces the metabolic energy required to lug a heavy backpack by 11%. The system, which essentially acts as a shock absorber for your back, robotically simulates the “flexible bamboo poles used to carry bulky goods.”

Photo: Huazhong University of Science and Technology

The robotic backpack design reduces inertial force with each step, reducing the energy needed as we walk, according to the paper. In addition to a passive system of straps, a weight embedded in the system reduces the force with which the backpack draws us down as we move forward.

From the study:

The goal of our backpack is to eliminate the inertial force of the load acting on human walkers such that carriers experience only the gravitational force. To truly benefit load carriers in an outdoor setting, the backpack should be fully autonomous and capable of carrying substantial loads. The designed backpack consists of a passive system to suspend the load and an active system to adjust the payload acceleration. All passive and active components are integrated on a carbon fibre backpack frame, which was secured to its wearer by the physical interface (shoulder straps and waist belt).

The researchers note that they only tested the robotic backpack on flat ground and that a more outdoorsy hike could reduce the effect.

“We admitted that the customised backpack had some drawbacks when compared with the conventional rucksack, such as the load type and volume,” they wrote. “This problem could be partly solved by designing specialised containers. Additionally, we only showed that the customised backpack has a metabolic advantage over the rucksack in level-ground walking.”

There is no plan to commercialize this gear just yet, so you and your hiking group will have to pack in and pack out your Bud Lights and whiskey bottles using a plain old backpack for yet another season.