Robo-trousers which help people stand up, walk upstairs and get out-and-about without wheelchairs, are being designed by British scientists in a government-funded scheme to help the elderly and disabled stay mobile.
The University of Bristol is developing ‘smart trousers’ with artificial muscles which give frail people bionic strength so they can live independently for longer.
The project has been dubbed ‘The Right Trousers’ by scientists in reference to Wallace and Gromit animation ‘The Wrong Trousers’ in which Wallace constructs a pair of calamitous cyber-slacks.
Although the researchers did admit there was a slim chance of ‘trouser hijacking’ as happened in the Aardman adventure, they said it was more likely they would simply help people ‘get out of the armchairs to make a cup of tea.’
In Britain there are 10 million people living with disabilities and 1.2 million people coping with the after effects of a stroke, and the numbers are predicted to rise with the ageing population.
Professor Jonathan Rossiter, of the Bristol Robotics Laboratory at Bristol University, told The British Science Festival: “As we all get older and we all live longer we really want to maintain our mobility for as long as possible.
“About four years ago the research councils decided they wanted to throw some science at the problem to help us in the future because we’ve got a growing population, there are fewer carers per person so we need these kind or robotic solutions.
“We wanted to use this power to get people out and about, out of their living room chairs into the kitchen to make a cup of tea. If you can do that and help people to stay as independent for as long as possible you increase their functional capability, their cognitive capability, it reduces the load on the state and the care system.
“Our dream is to make these devices ubiquitous so that in six or seven years time anyone can go into Boots and buy I pair of trousers off the shelf and they would help you to move around.”
The trousers, which are expected to be available within a decade, work by using a number of different technologies including pneumatics, plastics, graphene and electrodes which mimic the movements of muscle and bone.
Plastic bubbles inside the trousers can be quickly inflated to act as artificial muscles, to help people stand up, while there is even a function which allows them to be dropped quickly in the event of a quick dash to the toilet.
Parts of the trouser fabric are also expected to be made of soft graphene which can become rock hard if heat is passed through, to give support to the knees of ankles.
However the scientists were forced to rethink some of their original ideas after initial focus groups suggested wearers wanted a host of unexpected features.
“We said to them we can make cool technology that you don’t need to wash, we can put nanoparticles in which will keep them nice and fresh and all the bugs die,” said Prof Rossiter.
“They said, no we do want to wash them, we have this routine, we always want to wash our clothes so it doesn’t matter if you make them non-washable we will wash them.
“They said they wanted them to be easy to put on and as engineers, we thought we don’t need to worry about that, we’ll just get a massive piece of velcro and stick it on somewhere but velcro is almost impossible for someone who has functional difficulties in their hand after a stroke to use.”
The technology now allows for easy dressing by changing size when the wearer wants to remove the trousers.
The project is funded by a £2 million grant from the Engineering and Physical Science Research Council (EPSCR) which allocates government money for innovative projects.
As part of the funding a team at Leeds University is also helping people who have suffered strokes to walk more easily using a wearable mechanical brace which helps lift their foot off the ground.
And the researchers are hopeful that the trousers will feed back information so that doctors can monitor the health of those wearing them.
“They will be part of the internet of things and the data that will be generated and the movement of the person will be fed back to a monitoring system and the GPs surgery,” added Prof Rossiter.
“There is a lot of data and there is a question about whether somebody can hijack your trousers, but let’s assume that we can completely overcome that.”