Motorised shoes could help the elderly improve their balance

Motorised shoes aimed at helping the elderly improve their balance are being developed with help from researchers at Strathclyde University.

The work forms part of the SMILING (Self Mobility Improvement in the Elderly by Counteracting Falls) project to help older people improve their mobility.

Israeli company Step of Mind initiated the research following similar work being undertaken for children with cerebral palsy.

It claims that by adapting the conditions beneath the feet, elderly people can effectively relearn how to walk and reduce the risk of injury from falls.

Each shoe contains four motors that change the balance of the user with every step taken. The users are challenged to actively respond to these changes as they are unable to see or predict what is coming next.

Strathclyde University has been responsible for constructing the shoe’s mechanical structure and David Carus, technical lead on the project, said this was far more challenging than expected.

‘The main problem was trying to make the components as small as possible and when you do that the forces get very high. In fact, in one part of the shoe, the force was equivalent to half the weight of a family car.’

Using computational fluid dynamics, the team at Strathclyde was able to find the right balance between size and force and sent four prototypes to be trialled in Italy, Switzerland, Israel and Slovakia.

‘The results were promising, but the statistical proof is, as yet, not adequate,’ said Carus. ‘We’re hoping to improve the shoe by reducing its size and weight, and carry out larger trials in the future.’

According to Age UK, up to one in three over-65s suffer a fall each year, costing the NHS around £4.6m a day.

The project received financial support from the European Commission under the European Union 7th Framework Programme of Research and Development.