Robotic pants to aid mobility

September 13, 2018

Johnathan Rossiter’s new trousers are bright, colourful, Lycra, perfect for track and soon they will be robotic.

A team of British researchers have started developing soft robotics in wearable tech. They are currently inventing robotic muscles – air-filled bubbles of plastic that can raise a leg from a seated to a standing position.

“We are all going to get older and our mobility is going to reduce,” he says. “What we want to do is give people that extra bit of boost, to maintain their independence as long as possible,” says Jonathan, regarding the new technology.

Although the technology is still about a decade away, it is set to give that added boost to our ability to stand and walk when needed most.

Jonathan, a professor at the University of Bristol, explained that “there are about 10 million people in the UK with disabilities”. This includes people with functional disability, but also those with mobility problems in old age.

By 2046, the proportion of people aged 65 and over could grow to nearly a quarter of the population. About 1.2 milllion people in the UK have had a stroke.

Many of these people will need mobility assistance. The problems experienced by people may be in walking, sitting and standing, but also with other day-to-day tasks like dressing.

Social services are under increasing pressure to provide more carers and occupational therapy. Jonathans work invests £2 million of EPSRC funding into robotic solutions that would improve on the conventional aids of walking stick/frames, wheel chairs, or mobility scooters.

Researchers were showcasing the technology and some of the clothing developed for the first time at this week’s British Science Festival in Hull. Jonathan said one of their foremost goals is to replicate human muscle in an artificial form, so that they are able to be tailoredinto the trousers

He has teamed up with scientists from across the UK to bring together nanoparticle science, functional 3-D printing, smart material development and artificial muscle technology.

“Soft robotics can make materials and structures that behave in a really sophisticated way in contrast to conventional robotics” said Jonathan.

“We have evolved organisms that are so sophisticated in their movement in their sensing and in control, like the octopus, they can bend and twist can squeeze into small spaces. We can take some of these capabilities and put them into artificial muscles, put them onto clothing,” he added.

At the science festival, Jonathan’s team demonstrated the artificial muscles. The device looks like strings of cocktail sausages made from clear plastic and can be inflated with air.

Once inflated, the whole structure contracts and shortens like muscle does, and the cocktail sausage shapes becomes round like baubles.

There is considerable power generated by the artificial muscle as a researcher demonstrated that this can raise a robotic leg from a seated to a standing position.

“You need a cylinder of air in your back pocket and as you walk you get little ‘phutts’ of air as they actuate,” said Jonathan.

They are potentially noisy devices, but the vision the team is developing is one using electroactive polymers – materials that require electricity.

Jonathan mentioned this was “great, because you’ve got mobile phone batteries, lithium polymer batteries that you can put in your pocket”.

He added, “With those, you have materials that you apply electricity to, and they contract like a muscle.”

Once incorporated into the trousers, there is scope for an embedded control system. The electroactive polymers themselves generate an electrical signal. Jonathan explains that is so that the wearables have the ability to measure someone’s movement from the same materials that are also going to deliver the power to the person. The material is doing the sensing, the computation, then they deliver the power to exactly the right place.”

The technology might offer the potential of prolonged independent living, but a potential downside might be discouraging a person from using their own muscles, causing them to atrophy.

But as a rehabilitation device, it may be doing the opposite, Jonathan goes on to say.

“So that people who are weaker are becoming stronger, working with the device/trousers – they are exercise trousers making their legs stronger, their knees stronger.”

While the core technology greatly improved and are in the testing, the trousers are still just a pair of brightly coloured leggings for the time being.

They’ve also come up with air-driven waistbands to trousers which, at a push of a button, will allow trousers to loosen at the waist and drop to the floor. Sounds funny, but has real practical potential.

“People with functional incontinence just can’t get to the toilet in time and end up using pads. That’s a terrible change in their lifestyle, and we are trying to get around that as well,” said Jonathan.

The robotic clothes will need to be washable too.

The next phase of the team’s work is going to involve working with clinicians, charities, and prosthetic device companies.

Jonathan predicts that with the involvement of good design and manufacturing companies, the trousers could be available in 10 years.

But as he puts it, “It could be there is a smart knee-brace or a smart ankle brace or a smart pair of pants. So I see low-hanging fruit coming relatively quickly within a few years rather than having to wait for these actual trousers.”


Category: Features, Technology & Devices

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