Date Published: 23 February 2015

Scientists build smart trousers and sensitive bionic hand

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Innovative projects involving the use of futuristic engineering to work with the human body have recently been announced by Leeds University in the north of England.

The projects described include the challenge of developing a 'bionic hand' that transmits touch sensations directly into the brain and a separate project to develop a pair of 'smart trousers' incorporating with artificial 'muscles' embedded in soft fabric whose purpose is to support the movement of disabled and older people. These areas of work are both receiving funding from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), UK government funding body for engineering.

Dr Rory O'Connor, Senior Lecturer in Rehabilitation Medicine at Leeds University' Faculty of Medicine and Health, is involved in both projects and explained that:

" These are not pie-in-the-sky ideas. We are start work now and the funders have set us the challenge of delivering workable devices in three years."

The work will receive input from experts based at many centres of excellence located around the UK. The 'bionic hand' group involves team members from Leeds, Essex, Keele, Southampton and Newcastle Universities as well as from Imperial College London. The 'soft robotic clothing' group that aims to develop new ways to provide assistance with mobility will receive input from experts at Bristol, the West of England, Nottingham, Strathclyde, Southampton and Loughborough Universities in addition to the work undertaken at Leeds.

More about these projects:

Bionic hand to transmit touch sensations to the brain

Scientists aim to develop an artificial hand that can sense temperature, pressure and shear (forces moving across its "skin") and transmit this real-time sensory information directly into the brain. The electrodes in the bionic limb would wrap around the nerve endings in the arm.

Dr Steenson, senior lecturer at Leeds University's School of Electronic and Electrical Engineering, said:

" We need microelectrodes made from flexible plastics that do not damage the tissue in the way that hard materials would. We need to build these connections at a minute scale: the diameter of the nerves can be smaller than the width of a human hair?and we want to be able to connect to collections of nerve fibres of this size within various nerve bundles."

Other members of the team aim to create fingertip sensors that will give the prosthesis a realistic sense of touch, develop ways of sensing the hand's position and movement and find out how to translate electronic signals into a form that the brain can use.

Smart trousers incorporating 'artificial muscles'

The team plan to develop soft robotic clothing, initially in the form of a 'smart sock'. This is will have a serious application because people recovering from ankle injuries and other damage such as strokes can suffer from 'foot drop', as a result of which they have difficulty lifting the affected foot upwards in order to take a stride. It is hoped that the fabric in the 'smart sock' will assist by providing the extra force needed to move the foot into the right position.

Eventually - in three year's time according to the initial plan - the team expects to have made significant progress towards developing a pair of 'smart trousers' to provide additional 'bionic' strength to help wearers climb stairs and stand up. Such trousers might even help wearers to avoid falls by detecting and providing extra support when the user is losing balance.

Philip Nelson, Chief Executive of EPSRC said:

" These research studies will improve patients' lives, allow greater independence and benefit patients with a wide range of mobility and co-ordination difficulties. With the UK's ageing population and a rise in disabilities EPSRC investment in healthcare research has a national impact."

Source: Leeds University, England (UK) -

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