Wearable Soft Robotics for Independent Living

Rehabilitation technologists at the University of Southampton led by Dr Chris Freeman are part of a national team who will transform science fiction to reality. Over the next three years, the team will produce prototypes of soft robotic trousers to transform the lives of those with mobility impairments. This is the first time soft robotic technologies have been employed to address rehabilitation and health care needs in a single piece of clothing. Sci-fi dreams will become practical solutions, enabling our ageing population to live with greater independence and dignity.

Starting in July 2015, the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council have awarded the team two million pounds for this exciting three-year project. The prototype wearable technology will include trousers and socks that are easy to use, comfortable, adaptable and meet each user’s individual mobility needs.

Dr Freeman of the Electronics and Electrical Engineering research group within Electronics and Computer Science, said: “I am excited to be part of this multidisciplinary project, which brings together the UK’s leading researchers in control systems, soft robotics and smart materials. We will develop fundamental technologies that will transform independent living for the disabled and infirm. Clinical and user involvement at every stage will ensure we produce the right not the wrong trousers.”

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.

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.

The University of Southampton is partnered with the universities of Bristol, the West of England, Nottingham, Leeds, Strathclyde and Loughborough.

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