Imagine wearing a pair of pants that help you climb the stairs. No, it’s not a product designed to be a one-size-fits-all for the ultimate couch potato on a journey to avoid exercise, but instead a helpful tool for helping those suffering from mobility problems.
Enter the smart pants, which are being developed under the code name ‘Wearable Soft Robotics for Independent Living’, a three-year project, led by the University of Bristol in the UK.
With funding from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) of £2 million, it encompasses the research leading through to the successful completion of a prototype.
These pants would comprise of artificial muscles that are made from a combination of different, newly invented smart materials that work with the body’s own muscles.
The compounds in the pants would have reactive properties as well as greatly increased strength.
With a fitted controller, the pants could monitor the wearer’s movements and self-determine the level of help it should provide.
Pants for the frail elderly
The ‘Wearable Soft Robotics’ project is aimed more at the frail elderly or people with reduced mobility and not people with permanent disabilities. (Though the development of Exo-skeletons might offer hope to them someday).
The success of this program would hopefully play a positive role in freeing up public health resources associated with the care of the elderly and disabled but as the name of the project implies, it would give a sense of independence and freer mobility to the individual.
Assistive devices that are currently used for mobility (though obviously helpful in the absence of other alternatives) come with their own problems such as poor blood circulation, skin problems and limited mobility in some circumstances.
Freedom from wheelchair
With the smart pants’ ability to complement and enhance the wearers own body, it is hoped that they will negate the need for things like stair lifts and even wheelchairs.
The project (due to begin March of this year with completion in 2018) could act as a proof of concept for other parts of the body that would also benefit from enhanced mobility like arms and hands.
The nature of the materials used mean that to an outsider, it would look more or less like normal clothes so the individual wouldn’t have to look like a clunky cyborg in order to get more freedom of movement.
“We are hoping that these [pants] will help many million people in the UK and tens of millions of more around the world,” said Dr. Rory O’Conner, the clinical adviser to the project in an interview for the BBC Global News podcast.