UL scientists to help build ‘smart clothing’ of the future

17 Oct 2016

From left: Dr Adam de Eyto, head of UL’s school of design with Dr Leonard O’Sullivan, senior lecturer in design ergonomics at UL. Image: UL

Constructing ‘smart clothing’ is less fashion, more function, with University of Limerick part of a Horizon 2020 project building added mobility exoskeletons for the old and injured.

Movement intention is the key to the latest Horizon 2020 (H2020) project to land on Irish shores, with designers at University of Limerick (UL) at the forefront of a soft-robotics future.

Aimed at the old and impaired, a soft exoskeleton to aid mobility is being created by nine partner institutions, with UL handling the front-facing, fashion-conscious role that will bring soft robotics to the masses.

UL exoskeleton

In the XoSoft project, state-of-the-art advanced textiles and smart materials will be used to create sensing and variable-stiffness joints.

The design factors research group, based at UL’s school of design, is playing a major role in the development of a soft, modular, lower-limb exoskeleton.

Conceivably described as ‘smart clothing’, the €5.4m project (UL gets €550,000) incorporates robotics into trousers; supporting, strengthening and adding extra movement capabilities to the wearer.

This group is led by senior lecturer in design ergonomics at UL, Dr Leonard O’Sullivan, and head of UL’s school of design, Dr Adam de Eyto. O’Sullivan is sure that this project, the third such EU-funded programme UL is involved in at the moment, is perfectly suited to his team.

“As it’s our school of design that’s involved, we’re primarily working on the user-centred design of the variety of technologies,” said O’Sullivan, with his team already sorting through robotic options from partners and deciding which will work best in trial designs for patients.

Graphic of exoskeleton. Image: Eoin White/Design Factors/UL

Graphic of exoskeleton. Image: Eoin White/Design Factors/UL

Built-in sensors will communicate the user’s motion and intention to the controlling unit for analysis to determine and provide the appropriate level of assistance. Depending on the user’s need at a given moment, the device will provide support, release or freedom of movement.

“As this is for the elderly, largely, it has to be made with them in mind, so trialling options is very important,” he said, with five people at UL currently involved.

O’Sullivan said there are 3.2m wheelchair users in Europe and another 40m who cannot walk without an aid.

“People with limitation in independent movement of their legs can rely on a variety of assistive devices,” he said.

“Yet the available assistive aids are usually bulky, fairly inflexible and can therefore only partially support the process of movement. Neither do they encourage or support the activation of legs, which is essential to prevent further atrophy. This is where XoSoft comes in.”

By the spring of 2019, the first prototype should roll out.

Gordon Hunt was a journalist with Silicon Republic