Could the answer to mobility problems one day be as easy as pulling on a pair of trousers? A research team led by Bristol University professor Jonathan Rossiter has recently unveiled a prototype pair of robotic trousers that they hope could help some disabled people walk without other assistance.
As an engineer who researches ways of helping people with spinal chord injuries move their limbs again, I’m acutely aware of how the loss of mobility can affect a person’s quality of life, and how restoring that movement can help. Given the staggering number of people with disabilities (over 6.5 million people with mobility problems in the UK alone) and our aging population, devices that improve mobility could help a large segment of the population.
Yet despite 50 years of research, this kind of technology has rarely been adopted outside the lab. So is the novel development of robotic trousers on course to finally take a working mobility technology into the home?
Unlike the rigid robotic device in the Wallace and Gromit animated film The Wrong Trousers, the new so-called “Right Trousers” use soft artificial muscles to create movement, as well as harnessing the wearer’s real muscles. These mimic human muscles in producing a force simply by becoming shorter and pulling on both ends.
By bundling several artificial muscles together, the assistive trousers can move a joint such as the knee, and help the user with movements such as standing up from a chair. Because the artificial muscles are elastic and soft they are safer than traditional motors used in rigid robotic exoskeletons that, although powerful, are stiff and uncomfortable.
The researchers have put forward several different ideas for how to shorten the artificial muscles and create movement. One design adapts the concept of air muscles, which are effectively balloons that expand sideways and shorten in length as they fill with air.
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