They’re setting out to develop the likes of ‘smart’ trousers and socks that would provide vulnerable people with support whilst walking and add bionic strength in order to move from seated to standing positions or climb stairs. It’s hoped the technology advances being investigated would allow many to live independently and with dignity.
The research also involves the Universities of Bristol, Southampton, Nottingham, Leeds and the West of England, and Loughborough University.
Dr Arjan Buis, of Strathclyde’s Department of Biomedical Engineering, is among the researchers. He will be leading the evaluation of biomechanics part of the project that will contribute to the control algorithms and final evaluation of the technology.
He said: “The mobility problems we are addressing take different forms. They can be found in people who need rehabilitation after breaking legs or other bones, in people with chronic conditions such as spinal cord problems or muscular dystrophy, and in frail elderly people. “We want to help these people not only to become more mobile but to have power behind their mobility. We also want to ensure they have dignity, by being able to put on this clothing themselves and not to have to change it during the day.”
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, all of which deplete health resources. The Wearable Soft Robotics technology has the potential to alleviate many of these patients’ problems and reduce healthcare costs.
The researchers aim to begin testing the technology one year into the three year-study, which is being funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC). The clothing would come in varying forms according to requirement, reaching to the ankle, the knee or the hip. Dr Buis and his colleagues on the project plan to utilise user specific mannequins to help develop the clothes.
The clothing will use artificial ‘muscles’ made from smart materials and reactive polymers which are capable of exerting great force. This 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.