Enter the maze

The wrong trousers? Not any more!

by Paul Curzon, Queen Mary University of London

Robot sitting in chair : Image from pixabay.com REF 2356432

Inspired by the Wallace & Gromit film 'The Wrong Trousers', Johnathan Rossiter of the University of Bristol builds robotic trousers. We could all need them as we get older.

Think of a robot and you probably think of something metal: something solid and hard. But a new generation of robot researchers are exploring soft robotics: robots made of materials that are squishy. When it comes to wearable robots, being soft is obviously a plus. That is the idea behind Jonathan's work. He is building trousers to help people stand and walk.

Being unable to get out of an armchair without help can be devastating to a person's life. There are many conditions like arthritis and multiple sclerosis, never mind just plain old age, that make standing up difficult. It gets to us all eventually and having difficulty moving around makes life hard and can lead to isolation and loneliness. The less you move about, the harder it gets to do, because your muscles get weaker, so it becomes a vicious circle. Soft robotic trousers may be able to break the cycle.

Being unable to get out of your armchair without help can be devastating.

We are used to the idea of walking sticks, frames, wheelchairs and mobility scooters to help people get around. Robotic clothes may be next. Early versions of Jonathan's trousers include tubes like a string of sausages that when pumped full of air become more solid, shortening as they bulge out, so straightening the leg. Experiments have shown that inflating trousers fitted with them, can make a robot wearing them stand. The problem is that you need to carry gas canisters around, and put up with the psshhht! sound whenever you stand!

The team have more futuristic (and quieter) ideas though. They are working on designs based on 'electroactive polymers'. These are fabrics that change when electricity is applied. One group that can be made into trousers, a bit like lycra tights, silently shrink with an electric current: exactly what you need for robotic trousers. To make it work you need a computer control system that shrinks and expands them in the right places at the right time to move the leg wearing them. You also need to be able to store enough energy in a light enough way that the trousers can be used without frequent recharging.

It's still early days, but one day they hope to build a working system that really can help older people stand. Jonathan promises he will eventually build the right trousers.

Creepy Crawling Skin

Roboticist Rebecca Kramer-Bottiglio's team at Yale University have developed a 'robotic skin' that can be wrapped round objects. Put it on a stuffed toy and you can bring it to life and make it move around like a robot.

This article funded by ...

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