A new research project by scientists from the University of Bristol will help thousands of people with mobility issues. The FREEHAB project will develop soft, wearable rehabilitative devices with the aim of assisting elderly and disabled people to move from sitting to standing as well as helping them walk comfortably and safely. 

The work is led by University of Bristol Professor of Robotics Jonathan Rossiter and builds on his previous Right Trousers project, which produced new soft materials which could be used like artificial muscles.

“There are over 10.8 million disabled people living in the UK today. Nearly 6.5 million have mobility impairments,” said Rossiter. “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.”

Rehabilitation is essential for patients, but outcomes are often hampered by a lack of easy-to-use dynamic tools to help assess issues and develop effective interventions. 

The materials used for the artificial muscles include 3D-printable electroactive gel materials, and soft but strong pneumatic chains that change shape when inflated and exert considerable force.

To develop the project, the researchers will work with physiotherapists in the UK NHS and private practice, as well as with people who have had physiotherapy for their mobility problems.

Following research and development, the aim is to conduct clinical trials before bringing the devices to the market. The three-year FREEHAB project, due to start in September, has received £1,162,224 funding from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC).

“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.”