The University of Bristol is developing ‘‘smart trousers’’ with artificial muscles which give the elderly and disabled bionic strength so they can live independently for longer.
The project has been dubbed ‘‘The Right Trousers’’ in reference to The Wrong Trousers, the Wallace and Gromit animation 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 Nick Park adventure, they said it was more likely they would simply help people get out of the armchair 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. The numbers are predicted to rise with an ageing population.
Professor Jonathan Rossiter, of the Bristol Robotics Laboratory at Bristol University, told The British Science Festival: ‘‘As we get older and 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 of robotic solutions.
‘‘If you can help people to stay independent as long as possible you increase their functional capability, their cognitive capability, and 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 a pair of trousers off the shelf to help you move around.’’
The trousers contain inflatable ‘‘muscles’’, each of which can lift up to 6kg, as well as a pneumatic stiffening device to hold the knee securely when people want to stand up.
‘‘One of the challenges as people get older is being able to get from that sitting position in the living room to walking around. Once you’re standing up you’re kind of all right,’’ Prof Rossiter said. ‘‘Then if you move into the kitchen and do the washing up there’s a need for something to help you stand.’’ That is when the stiffener can be activated.
The final element showcased yesterday was a button that slackened the trousers, a feature created after speaking to elderly people in focus groups. ‘‘Once people have made their cup of tea and got into their chair, one of the problems is they cannot get to the toilet and undo their clothing in time to sit on the toilet. This can impact confidence.’’
Prof Rossiter said that the goal was to augment the legs. Ultimately the intention is to create trousers that respond like an extension of the body, without the need for manual controls.
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