So apparently some rather clever chaps over at the University of Bristol are about to go all Wallace and Gromit on us. Apparently they are about embark on a 3 year project to develop ‘robotic trousers’ that could be a viable alternative to traditional mobility devices such as wheelchairs and frames.
For those unfamiliar with the reference above. In 1993, the BBC made a stop-motion short film starring the beloved pair titled, ‘The Wrong Trousers’. In the film mad inventor Wallace created a pair of robotic trousers that enhanced every aspect of his mobility (though I’m sure how practical they were).
Whether fans of this classic or not, the team led by Jonathan Rossiter are among the first to develop what they term as ‘soft robotics’ for the mobility market. Rossiter rightly pointed out that many current solutions can in fact cause further problems. For example restrict blood circulation or create pressure sores. Rossiter suggested that soft robotics could help reduce these problems and the associated cost of treating them.
“Wearable soft robotics has the potential to improve many of these problems and reduce healthcare costs at the same time too,” Rossiter said.
This self-styled ‘intelligent clothing’ is intending to use artificial muscles as a means to aid the user to stand or move on their own. The artificial muscles used by this so called “intelligent clothing” are made up of smart materials and reactive molecules with plastic-like property that can exert great forces. Control systems will likewise be incorporated and these will monitor the person who uses clothing and work with the natural muscles of the body to provide assistance when required. The research team suggest that this system could one day replace wheelchairs and other pieces of equipment, which is a assertion that I am not convinced by.
I have said it before and I’ll say it again – I am not convinced by this notion of walking being something of a Holy Grail. I use to use crutches a fair bit when I was younger and I can tell you that it is hard work. I’ve also worked with a number of people mostly with Cerebral Palsy, who have suffered the effects of pushing themselves to walk in later life. Artificial muscles will not necessarily improve a person’s walking pattern and therefore will not necessarily prevent problems such as joint denigration. I’m not saying people should not be encouraged to stand or move around on their own but I think it is going a little far to suggest that soft robotics could be the nail in the coffin for wheelchairs.
One of the key reasons behind my decision to mainly use a wheelchair was security. When I was out by myself, I felt more secure in my wheelchair. I knew that I could travel distances, over uneven terrain and that I could keep up with other people.
These smart trousers would have to be pretty special to give that same level of ability.