Healthcare tech research receives £5million boost

Three research projects has been awarded £5.3 million by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC).

The trio focuses on a prosthetic hand, controlled by the nervous system, robotic clothing to help people with walking, and biosensors, to monitor how patients use equipment or exercise during rehabilitation. Projects start this spring and are led by Newcastle University (Enabling Technologies for Sensory Feedback in Next-Generation Assertive Devices), the University of Bristol (Wearable Soft Robotics for Independent Living) and the University of Warwick (Adaptive, Assistive Rehabilitative Technology: Beyond the Clinic) working with 15 other university partners.

The Newcastle-led team will develop a prosthetic hand which will give users a sense of feedback. The team will build fingertip sensors to give the prosthesis a sense of touch, pressure, shear and temperature. A 'virtual hand' will provide information on the sense of the hand's position and movement, known as proprioception. Finally, the system will translate the signals to a form the brain understands and stimulate the nervous system to help the user control the hand.

Research at the University of Bristol, University of the West of England, University of Nottingham, University of Leeds, University of Strathclyde, University of Southampton and Loughborough University will develop soft robotic clothing to enable those with mobility impairments, disabilities and age-related weakness to move easily and unaided.

Smart trousers could help vulnerable people avoid falls, by supporting them whilst walking, or help people climb stairs, suggests the project. They could replace a stair lift in a home or other bulky mobility and stability aids.

The intelligent clothing or 'second skin' will use artificial 'muscles' made from smart materials and reactive polymers which are capable of exerting great forces. The material will be developed using the latest wearable soft robotic, nanoscience, 3D fabrication, functional electrical stimulation and full-body monitoring technologies. Material will be required, for example to include control systems that monitor the wearer and adapt to give the most suitable assistance, working with the body's muscles.

Many existing devices used by people with mobility problems can cause or aggravate conditions such as poor circulation, skin pressure damage or susceptibility to falls, each of which is a drain on health resources. Wearable Soft Robotics has the potential to alleviate many of these patients' problems and reduce healthcare costs.

The University of Warwick is partnering with Cardiff University, University of Kent, UCL (University College London), Oxford Brookes University, University of Salford and University of York to design and develop cheap, disposable, unobtrusive bio-sensors such as temporary tattoos and smart watches, to use with patients who use wheelchairs or prosthetics, patients requiring rehabilitation, as well as older people.

The study will collect data and monitor how patients use equipment, and also measure how they follow exercise advice at home, for example, after a stroke or accident. The research will also develop software that uses the biosensor information to support users with their equipment or exercises in their own home. Anecdotally, poor use of equipment or not following physiotherapy guidance on exercise can lead to more complex health problems.