Research into robotic trousers to help those with impaired mobility

Issue date: 24 February 2015

Elderly hands grip a zimmer frame

A new research project to develop robotic clothing to help people with walking has been awarded £2 million by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC).

The project is one of three research projects focusing on healthcare tech research to receive funding from the EPSRC. A prosthetic hand controlled by the nervous system, robotic clothing to help people with walking, and biosensors to monitor how patients use equipment or exercise during rehabilitation have been awarded research funding of £5.3 million by the (EPSRC).

UWE Bristol Occupational Therapist, Ailie Turton, is part of the national team of engineering and healthcare scientists working on Wearable Soft Robotics for Independent Living led by theUniversity of Bristol, with UWE Bristol, and the universities of Nottingham, Leeds, Strathclyde Southampton and Loughborough University.

The project has been awarded a £2 million grant from the EPSRC for designing and developing adaptive assistive rehabilitation technology.

Ailie won a place at an 'ideas factory' during the EPSRC's sandpit selection process in September 2014. There followed a selection process for the best research proposals to improve quality of life in people with disabilities and to benefit the UK's ageing population.

The research team will develop soft robotic clothing to enable those with mobility impairments, disabilities and age-related weakness to move easily and unaided, and to live independently and with dignity. The end results will be easy to use, comfortable, adaptable and meet the user's individual mobility needs.

Smart trousers could help vulnerable people avoid falls by supporting them whilst walking, give people added bionic strength to move between sitting and standing positions, and help people climb stairs which were previously insurmountable. They could replace the stair lift in the home and other bulky and uncomfortable mobility and stability aids. Ultimately they have the potential to free many wheelchair users from their wheelchairs.

This intelligent clothing or 'second skin' will use artificial 'muscles' made from smart materials and reactive polymers which are capable of exerting great forces. They will be developed using the latest wearable soft robotic, nanoscience, 3D fabrication, functional electrical stimulation and full-body monitoring technologies, all driven by the need of the end users, who will also be directly involved in the project. They will include control systems that monitor the wearer and adapt to give the most suitable assistance, working with the body's own muscles. For patients needing rehabilitation the smart clothing can initially provide strong support and subsequently reduce assistance as the patient recovers mobility and strength.

“Ailie says, “This idea may sound like an Aardman production but these robotic trousers will be the 'right' trousers. They will help vulnerable people to avoid falls by supporting them whilst walking and could replace the stair lift in the home and other bulky and uncomfortable mobility and stability aids. Ultimately they have the potential to free many wheelchair users from their wheelchairs.

“We will be working with the end users to find out what people really think about the technology and to make sure it meets their needs. As an occupational therapist I worked for many years in the community and with people who have limited mobility - they use aids to get around the home or have to wait for someone to help them. We will produce detailed case studies to show how this technology could be beneficial.”

Many existing devices used by people with mobility problems can cause or aggravate conditions such as poor circulation, skin pressure damage or susceptibility to falls, each of which is a drain on health resources. Wearable Soft Robotics has the potential to alleviate many of these problems and reduce healthcare costs.

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