Hope Lies In The Right Pair of Pants

 January 9, 2019

By  Deborah L Weiner Katz, OTR/L, CCM, CLCP

British engineers are developing robotic trousers that can help people stand up, sit down, -and even drop-at the press of a button. Of course, in America, they would be called Robo-Pants or something along those lines. ‘Robotic trousers’ has a more dignified sound, suited to the nobility of the endeavor.

The intention of the project is to free people with mobility issues, and the elderly, from using wheelchairs and mobility scooters. These wearable walking and standing aids have been designed to provide support and extra strength. Most importantly, they will be safe to operate.

Funded by Britain’s Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), the scientists working on the project are aiming to produce a pair of lightweight ‘power trousers’ that can boost the strength of weakening muscles and joints by five percent to 10 percent. Their dream is for these items to be available everywhere.

These are not meant to be a science experiment. Quite the contrary, lead researcher Jonathan Rossiter, Professor of Robotics at the University of Bristol envisions anyone with mobility issues being able to head into a retail store, select their trousers, try them on and take them home.

These ‘trouser technologies’ emerged from the British Science Festival taking place at the University of Hull. There was a pneumatic device based on air-filled bubbles designed to push a seated person up into a standing position. Preventing accidents from occurring on the way to the toilet turned out to be the inspiration for a pair of trousers sporting a button that would cause them to drop at the press of a button.

The most advanced concept introduced was an electrically powered artificial muscle that adapts principles of origami. It was exhibited contracting and expanding in a glass case. There were also graphene knee supports and electrical skin patches. Of course, this level of advanced technology is why the cost of the pioneering project is still prohibitive.

For example, the robotic trousers currently include artificial muscles that help people be mobile. The cost of that technology alone is worth an estimated £40 billion, or $52 billion. The fabric is state-of-the-art. It provides support and allows a person to control the assistance they are given. The team is now bidding to work with a leading prosthetic company. It has also submitted a new funding request to the EPSRC.

Mobility impairments, disabilities and even age-related weaknesses could one day become obsolete. It won’t be because of a miracle drug or an Iron Man suit. As funny as it is to say out loud, it will be because of a pair of pants.

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