UK researchers are building robotic pants

Robotics could help the elderly and disabled climb stairs, maintain balance and move more agilely

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Researchers have been working on developing robotic prosthetics and exoskeletons to help people with disabilities. Now, scientists at the University of Bristol in the United Kingdom are working on creating robotic pants.

Yes, pants.

The soft robotic clothing has built-in artificial muscles designed to aid older people or people with disabilities, giving them the added strength and balance to prevent falls and let them move around more easily.

Scientists noted that material also could give users "bionic strength," helping them stand up, climb stairs and walk more steadily. The robotics might be able to replace crutches, stair lifts and possibly even wheelchairs.

Smart materials for robotic clothing Jonathan Rossiter

Polymer-based artificial muscles, shown here wrapped around a wrist, are expected to be used in robotic pants being developed at the University of Bristol.

"This is the first time soft robotics technologies have been used to address the many rehabilitation and healthcare needs in one single type of wearable device," Dr. Jonathan Rossiter, who focuses on robotics in the Department of Engineering and Mathematics at the University of Bristol, said in a written statement. "Many existing devices used by people with mobility problems can cause or aggravate conditions, such as poor circulation, skin pressure damage or susceptibility to falls, each of which is a drain on health resources."

He added that wearable soft robotics have the potential to address many of these problems and reduce healthcare costs.

Scientists from a variety of universities, companies and government agencies have been working on different ways to use robotics to help the elderly and disabled. For instance, the U.S. military has been testing an Iron Man-like suit that could make soldiers stronger, help them heal from wounds and give them more agility and endurance.

The Tactical Assault Light Operator Suit, or TALOS, is designed to give soldiers information on the battlefield and give them a physical advantage.

Harvard University is one of the institutions that has worked on the robotic exoskeletons for several years.

ActiveLink, largely owned by Panasonic, has been working on its own exoskeleton suit to give workers extra strength. And U.C. Berkeley researchers built robotic leg braces that helped one student, a paraplegic since a car accident, walk across the stage to receive his diploma nearly four years ago.

The University of Bristol project uses soft robotics, 3D printing and nanotechnology to enable the exoskeleton to work in coordination with the user's own muscles.

Researchers are expected to continue work on the project through 2018.

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