The act of climbing stairs consumes a great deal of energy compared to simply walking. Moreso, people with joint pain often avoid climbing stairs at all costs preferring elevators or escalators. Researchers from the Georgia Insitute of Technology took a look at stairs and discovered a way to optimize the way energy is expended and stored.
These engineers developed a sort of “smart stairs” that lower the impact of each step on joints through a relatively low-cost and low-energy system. In theory, this would allow for stairs that would allow everyone to walk up and down with little joint pain and decreased energy expenditure.
You can view a short video of how the stairs work below.
Walking down stairs is a fairly inefficient use of the potential energy stored in yourself from when you initially climbed up. Your legs have to expel a fairly large amount of energy absorbing shock from each step.
The researchers quantified that compared to walking, walking down stairs is 3 times more demanding on your joints. People with muscle weakness, joint pain, or reduced motor control could stand to benefit from this new technology the most.
Another aspect that motivated this efficient stair design is just how we improve our motor skills. For the impaired, taking elevators and escalators actually may create further motor skills loss in the future. Mobility tends to be a use-it-or-lose it skill, so climbing efficient stairs could also work as a sort of physical therapy.
Originally, the team wanted to create a set of shoes that would allow subjects to get up a set of stairs easier. They realized, however, that getting down stairs was actually the most wasteful part. After this realization, they designed a set of steps that stores energy in springs from when you walk down them to assist you in walking up. In essence, all of the wasted energy from going up and down stairs is harvested and reapplied into the user as they climb or descend.