Soft wearable rehab devices will act like artificial muscles

A new project based at the University of Bristol will develop soft, wearable rehab devices to help elderly and disabled people gain more mobility.

The artificial muscles will be made from 3D-printable electroactive gel materials and soft but strong pneumatic chains

The research programme, known as FREEHAB, will see a range of soft materials and modern manufacturing methods used to create different products. Some of these devices will be used to aid physiotherapists in their assessments of patients' movements, while others will be used by the patients themselves, helping them to stand up, for example. In those cases, the wearables will act like artificial muscles, powering mobility.

“There are over 10.8 million disabled people living in the UK today,” said project lead, Professor Jonathan Rossiter. “Nearly 6.5 million have mobility impairments. These numbers are growing as the median population age increases and age-related mobility issues due to conditions such as arthritis and stroke become more prevalent.”

According to Professor Rossiter, rehabilitation is increasingly taking place outside of clinical settings, generally in people’s homes. However, a lack of proper tools to assist people with rehab and simple movements is hindering progress for the millions who are affected. The new range of wearables will be made from materials including 3D-printable electroactive gel, and soft but strong pneumatic chains that change shape when inflated and can exert considerable force.

“Together with integrated sensing technology, we will make devices that physiotherapists can use to accurately pinpoint limitations in their patients' movements, thus enabling them to plan personalised training programmes,” said Rossiter.

“We will also make simpler devices that the patient can use to enhance their mobility activities and exercise with confidence when a therapist is not with them.”

During the three-year project, the researchers will work with physiotherapists in the NHS and private practice, as well as people who have undergone physiotherapy for their mobility problems. FREEHAB is due to get underway in September and is backed by EPSRC, receiving funding of £1,162,224.

“The work supported within the FREEHAB project will increase the ability of physiotherapists to support people with mobility impairments,” said Philippa Hemmings, head of Healthcare Technologies at EPSRC.

“It shows the power of engineers and physical scientists working in collaboration with partners, something our Healthcare Impact Partnership awards were set up to support.”