Could ‘wearable soft robotics’ be the perfect solution to help older people get around independently? Researchers at the University of Bristol in the UK believe so and the scientific community is impressed by their work to date.

Wearable Robotics to Provide Mobility Support for the Elderly

We have already seen the invention of robotic arms and robotic legs, but the science of robotics has certainly not finished providing useful adjuncts to the human body. Dr Jonathan Rossiter, Reader in Robotics in the Department of Engineering Mathematics at the University of Bristol, is leading a research project into ‘wearable soft robotics’, the basic idea being to find a solution that differs significantly from the current heavy and rather intrusive prostheses. Rossiter and his team are pioneering new research into ‘smart trousers’ that embed artificial ‘muscles’ in their soft fabric so as to help disabled or elderly people to move around smoothly. Instead of a heavy piece of equipment strapped on to the body, the new approach is ‘soft robotics’ technology. The control system reacts and adapts to the strength of the user’s muscles and can also send out a call for help if any serious problems arise.

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The work Jonathan Rossiter and his team are doing is based on recent research into ‘soft robotics’ technology, whose goal is to create more flexible robotic components with a view to manufacturing more supple and natural-feeling robotic aids. ‘Wearable soft robotics’ are put on like clothes and worn like a second skin. The University of Bristol press release states that the supportive clothing will include control systems that monitor the wearer and adapt to give the most suitable assistance, working with the body’s own muscles. “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,” explains Dr Rossiter in the press release. Of course the healthcare field has seen the arrival of many wearable alert systems in recent years but Rossiter’s research goes much further. The ‘smart trousers’ his team is working on will be light and easy to put on and serve not only to prevent falls, as other similar wearable devices can do, but also to help patient rehabilitation – initially providing strong support and subsequently reducing assistance as the patient regains mobility and strength.

The three-year project is due to start in July 2015, with completion scheduled for June 2018. The £2 million (€2.8 million) project, entitled ‘Wearable soft robotics for independent living’, is led by the University of Bristol in collaboration with the neighbouring University of the West of England plus the universities of Nottingham, Leeds, Strathclyde, Southampton and Loughborough. The project has won strong support  from the scientific community but at the end of the day the finished wearable product will have to find favour with the target users – disabled or elderly people – who will have to agree to let a machine guide their steps.

By Guillaume Scifo