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Loughborough experts to develop robotic clothing for the elderly and disabled

Loughborough University experts are helping to develop robotic clothing that will enable disabled and elderly people to live independent lives.

Researchers at Loughborough will be working with six other universities to develop wearable robotics to help people with mobility impairments, disabilities and age-related difficulties to move easily and unaided.

The ‘smart’ clothing would support areas of limb injury or limited mobility to allow people to engage in greater degrees of physical activity.

The £2 million project called Wearable soft robotics for independent living is being funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) and is due to be completed by June 2018. The other research partners are the Universities of Bristol (the project leader), Strathclyde, Southampton, Nottingham, Leeds and the West of England.

Russell Harris, Professor of Medical Engineering and Advanced Manufacturing, will lead Loughborough’s involvement in the study. The research team, based in the School of Mechanical and Manufacturing Engineering, will explore how electroactive polymers can be integrated into high performance fabrics to create clothing that is both supportive and comfortable to wear.

“At present people with restricted mobility have limited options when it comes to supportive devices,” explains Professor Harris.  “Many wearable options are cumbersome, uncomfortable and do not always offer the correct support in the right places. The aim of this project is to create wearable soft robotics that represent normal clothing whilst offering comprehensive mobility support.

“We are delighted to be part of this project and to be able to use our expertise in the area of digital and additive manufacturing processes to make a difference to the lives of people with restricted mobility.”

The clothing will assist movement through integrating forms of artificial ‘muscles’ made from smart materials and reactive polymers, which are capable of exerting physical force. This 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.

The project is part of a £5.3 million funding programme announced by the EPSRC to transform the design of assistive and rehabilitative devices.