Posted by Professor Jonathan Rossiter on 05 December 2018
Imagine someone you know is getting older and finding it difficult to get out of a chair. What are their options? They might consider moving into a care setting, but this is often an imperfect solution. For many, care represents a loss of autonomy and furthermore, this type of move has been shown to accelerate physical and cognitive decline.
Approximately 10 million people in the UK are believed to experience problems with mobility. A further 1.2 million who have suffered a stroke may require assistance with walking, sitting and standing, and with other day-to-day tasks like dressing. By 2046, nearly a quarter of the population of the UK could be aged 65 and over, with an associated growth in the need for social services to provide occupational therapists and care staff.
My team at the University of Bristol - alongside researchers from six universities - have been developing a solution: robotic trousers.
Part of a £2m EPSRC research project, the development of the trousers has brought together experts in fields including functional 3D-printing, smart-material development and artificial muscle technology.
Dubbed the Right Trousers after the Wallace and Gromit film The Wrong Trousers, the robotic legwear will help older people who are having difficulty moving around their homes and people with disabilities to maintain their independence for longer.
Artificial muscle technologies
The Right Trousers are wearable soft robotic clothing that give the wearer additional power to help them move. A combination of soft exoskeleton and traditional clothing, they aim to correct muscle weakening and to keep people mobile for longer.
To deliver this power assistance we have developed new artificial muscle technologies that can be sewn into fabric and which operate by using electricity or air pressure. These artificial muscles work together with the wearer's own muscles, ensuring that the wearer doesn't end up relying totally on the supportive trousers, which could result in more muscle weakening.
The prototype Right Trousers may be the most expensive pair of trousers in the world but the research being undertaken on the Right Trousers project has the potential to improve the lives of up to six million people in the UK with mobility problems.
Working with focus groups
One aspect of the project I have found particularly interesting is the inclusion of focus groups of elderly people and people with disabilities. This has given the engineers valuable information that they wouldn't have considered at first.
For example, people wanted the trousers to be washable, even though we could make them self-cleaning, and they were divided on whether the Trousers should be obvious to other people - some people wanted bright, fashionable trousers to show people how robotically-enhanced they were, while others would prefer to keep the power assistance to themselves and would rather have power under-clothes instead.
The prototype garments currently resemble Lycra cycling trousers; however, we are confident that the trousers can be developed in more 'tasteful' styles and it should be possible to choose a pair of 'assistance' trousers from a store, just as with 'regular' garments today.
The Right Trousers project has shown the great potential of soft robotics to impact many people, and how important it is to involve the target users from the very start of the research. Within ten years you may be able to go into a high-street shop, buy some Right Trousers and take them home to use straight away!
Year of Engineering
As part of the Year of Engineering, EPSRC have been sharing a variety of blogs from researchers working on EPSRC-funded Engineering projects to celebrate the wide range of career paths and research opportunities in the Engineering sector.
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Professor Jonathan Rossiter
Section / Team:
University of Bristol
Jonathan Rossiter is a Professor of Robotics at the University of Bristol and the Bristol Robotics Laboratory. He is supported by the EPSRC as a Research Fellow and by the Royal Academy of Engineering as a Chair in Emerging Technologies. From an early age he wanted to be an inventor, and by working in robotics research he says, I am doing what I always dreamed of doing! Every day is different and a challenge, from making the Right Trousers to designing implantable replacement robotic organs to testing (and eating!) edible robots, every day is exciting!