Researchers led by Minoru Hashimoto, a professor of textile science and technology at Shinshu University in Japan, have developed a wearable robot capable of supporting the hip joint while a patient is walking. The prototype design, which is described as a wearable actuator, is described in an article published in Smart Materials and Structures.
"With a rapidly aging society, an increasing number of elderly people require care after suffering from stroke, and other-age related disabilities. Various technologies, devices, and robots are emerging to aid caretakers," wrote Hashimoto and colleagues. "[In our] current study, [we] sought to develop a lightweight, soft, wearable assist wear for supporting activities of daily life for older people with weakened muscles and those with mobility issues."
The wearable system is made up of plasticized polyvinyl chloride (PVC) gel between mesh electrodes. The system is activated by applying voltage, which causes the gel to flex and contract like a real muscle. In the study, which involved the system being tested on a stoke patient with some paralysis on one side of the body, researchers noted the patient was able to walk with and without the system.
"The ability to add voltage to PVC gel is especially attractive for high speed movement, and the gel moves with high speed with just a few hundred volts,” said Hashimoto. "We found that the assist wear enabled natural movement, increasing step length and decreasing muscular activity during straight line walking."