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Move over Wallace and Gromit - it’s the right trousers

Electroactive polymer artificial muscles around the wrist Jonathan Rossiter

Press release issued: 24 February 2015

With an ageing UK population, older people could have the opportunity to stay independent for longer thanks to a pioneering project announced today [Tuesday 24 February]. New research, led by the University of Bristol, will develop smart trousers using artificial ‘muscles’ in its soft fabric to help disabled and older people move around easily and unaided.

The research project, funded by a £2 million grant from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), will enable people with mobility impairments, disabilities and age-related weaknesses to live independently and with dignity.

The soft robotic clothing 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 impossible. 

The wearable clothing could replace the stair lift in the home and other bulky and uncomfortable mobility and stability aids.  Ultimately soft robotic clothing has the potential to free many wheelchair users from their wheelchairs.

Dr Jonathan Rossiter, Reader in Robotics in the Department of Engineering Mathematics at the University of Bristol and who is leading the project, said: “This is the first time soft robotics technologies have been used to address the many rehabilitation and health care needs in one single type of wearable device.

“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 improve many of these problems and reduce healthcare costs at the same time too.”

This intelligent clothing or ‘second skin’ will use artificial ‘muscles’ made from smart materials and reactive polymers which are capable of exerting great forces.  The wearable device 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 be directly involved in the project.

The clothing 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.

The research team hope the wearable clothing will be easy to use, comfortable, and adaptable and meet the user’s individual mobility needs.

The £2 million project called Wearable soft robotics for independent living is led by the University of Bristol in collaboration with the universities of Nottingham, Leeds, Strathclyde, Southampton, Loughborough and UWE Bristol.  The three-year project will start in July 2015 and be completed by June 2018.

The project is part of a £5.3 million funding programme announced by the EPSRC today to transform the design of assistive and rehabilitative devices.

Further information

There are 11.6 million disabled people living in the UK today (Office for Disability Issues estimates 2012). Nearly 6.5 million have mobility impairments; 6.3 million have an impairment of lifting and carrying; 2.7 million have impaired co-ordination.

EPSRC’s invests over £700 million into healthcare research out of its total current portfolio.

About the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council
The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) is the UK’s main agency for funding research in engineering and the physical sciences. EPSRC invests around £800 million a year in research and postgraduate training, to help the nation handle the next generation of technological change. The areas covered range from information technology to structural engineering, and mathematics to materials science. This research forms the basis for future economic development in the UK and improvements for everyone’s health, lifestyle and culture. EPSRC works alongside other Research Councils with responsibility for other areas of research. The Research Councils work collectively on issues of common concern via Research Councils UK.

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