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“Smart” trousers could help with mobility problems

“SMART” trousers with artificial muscles which could allow those with mobility problems to abandon wheelchairs and scooters may soon hit pharmacy shelves.

A UK research project aims to free those who cannot walk alone from using such equipment — with robotic trousers that can help them stand up, sit down and move around.

Within 10 years the scientists hope to produce a pair of lightweight trousers for immobile people that can boost muscle and joint strength by 5 to 10 per cent.

The initiative has been dubbed the ‘right trousers’ project, after those immortalised by Wallace and Gromit in 1993 film The Wrong Trousers by Aardman Animations.

These "smart" trousers will provide similar support and extra strength, but unlike Wallace’s pair — which are hijacked by a sinister penguin — it is hoped they will be kept safely under control.

Lead researcher Jonathan Rossiter, a professor of robotics at the University of Bristol, said the trousers would give immobile people more independence and confidence, adding that wheelchair users often “feel like second-class citizens”.

The trousers could also help the elderly remain active if their mobility deteriorates, he said. About 10 million Britons have mobility problems, and 1.2 million require mobility assistance following a stroke.

A range of "trouser technologies" were exhibited at the British Science Festival at the University of Hull. These included a device that uses air-filled "bubbles" to help immobile people to stand up, and a mechanism that allows trousers to drop at the touch of a button. This would help those who have suffered a stroke, for instance, and have limited use of their hands.

Professor Rossiter said the technology on show could also help create "smart" shirts and jackets for those with muscle problems. His team is now bidding to work with a leading prosthetics firm. The project is being supported by the state-funded Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council.