A team of British engineers inspired by Wallace and Gromit are developing “the right trousers” to help people stay mobile in old age.
Like the “wrong trousers” featured in the famous Aardman animation, the wearable walking and standing aids will provide support and extra strength.
Unlike the pair worn by the hapless Wallace, they will – hopefully – be kept safely under control.
Numerous technologies have gone into the £2 million project funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), including smart electronics, graphene, and artificial muscles.
Within 10 years, the scientists hope to produce a pair of lightweight “power trousers” that can boost the strength of weakening muscles and joints by 5% to 10%.
Lead researcher Jonathan Rossiter, Professor of Robotics at the University of Bristol, said: “Our dream is to make our devices ubiquitous. In six or seven years time you could go into Boots, select your trousers, try them on, and take them home. They will be safe and will help you move around.”
He did, however, half seriously acknowledge the danger of “internet of things” hackers turning the madcap plot from Wallace and Gromit into reality.
“Of course there is the question of what happens if someone hijacks your trousers,” said Prof Rossiter. “Let’s hope we can overcome that.”
An estimated 10 million people in the UK have mobility problems, and 1.2 million require mobility assistance following a stroke.
The “right trousers” concept emerged from a brain-storming session in a hotel and feedback from focus groups made up of members of the public.
What people said they wanted was “magic” trousers that were easy to put on and use and comfortable to wear.
A range of “trouser” technologies were demonstrated at the British Science Festival taking place at the University of Hull.
They included a pneumatic device based on air-filled bubbles designed to push a seated person up into a standing position.
One of the oddest inventions was a way to drop a pair of trousers at the touch of a button and prevent accidents when trying to get to the toilet.
“You go from size eight to size 10 and your trousers fall down,” said Prof Rossiter.
A more advanced concept was an electrically powered artificial “origami” muscle that could be seen twitching spasmodically in a glass case. For commercial reasons, the team refused to say how it works.
Other innovations included graphene knee supports and electrical skin patches.
Professor Rossiter said: “People are living longer, and as the world faces an ageing population it is desirable that we are kept as active and independent for as long as possible.
“The ‘right trousers’ is a pioneering project which will eventually enable people with mobility impairments, disabilities and age-related weaknesses to live independently and with dignity.”
The team is now bidding to work with a leading prosthetics company and has submitted a new funding request to the EPSRC.
Prof Rossiter said: “So far our trousers have cost about £2 million. That’s quite an expensive pair of trousers, but the technologies have wide applications.”
The global market for actuator technology alone was worth an estimated £40 billion, he pointed out.