‘SMART suit’ set to improve quality of life

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A first of its kind exoskeleton suit is being developed to help disabled teenagers and young adults use their arms and upper body.

Duchenne UK

SMA UK, Duchenne UK and the Inclusionaries Lab at Liverpool University have been awarded a £1.25m grant from the People’s Postcode Lottery to develop what they have dubbed the ‘SMART suit’, which aims to give strength, independence and dignity to people living with Duchenne muscular dystrophy (DMD) and other progressive diseases. 

“We're positioning this as an assistive device to improve quality of life,” said Alessandra Gaeta, director of research at medical research charity Duchenne UK, which is leading the project.

DMD is a progressive muscle-wasting disease which typically affects boys, gradually reducing their ability to walk and, in later stages, to move their upper limbs. SMA (spinal muscular atrophy) is a rare neuromuscular condition that affects individuals differently.

Building on a proof-of-concept prototype developed in the US, the SMART Suit will use micro electric motor technology for robotic support and light weight, breathable and elastic fabric.  

The project aims to produce a suit that users can wear discretely under clothes on their torso to help aid everyday activities including eating, getting ready for school and social interactions like taking a call, texting, or waving to friends.

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“A lot of the work that we're going to have to do in this project is to come up with the user requirements, which will then feed into exactly how that prototype is going to be configured to meet those needs,” said Gaeta.

The project will focus on inclusive and human centred design by embedding functionality, usability and – importantly - desirability into the design. These elements will be informed by ADLs (activities of daily living), and a major focus of the project will look at activities with the greatest value to quality of life.

“We are acutely aware of this problem in the disability and assistive technology market that the focus is mainly on functionality,” said Dr Farnaz Nickpour, director of The Inclusionaries Lab, adding that the existing prototype is vital to the success of the project.

“One thing that we learned, early on from a review of the existing market, is that most of the products simply stay at the R&D stage. Hardly anything makes it to the market, and we are acutely aware of that.

“So, it is very important for us to start with something, rather than starting from scratch, and that's where the prototype that we have acquired sets us around.”

The project is looking to develop a prototype in three years, with a potential overall five-year timescale to take the product to market by 2027.