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Soft robotic mobility clothing & the greatest absence of evolution ever 

Robotic fabric that can get you moving


Elderly and physically disabled people could eventually be using the latest robotic technology to get around. New research, led by the University of Bristol, will develop smart trousers using artificial ‘muscles’ in its soft fabric for use as mobility aids.


The ‘soft robotic’ clothing could help vulnerable people avoid falls by supporting them whilst walking, give them added bionic strength to move between sitting and standing positions and help them climb stairs.


Dr Jonathan Rossiter, Reader in Robotics in the Department of Engineering Mathematics at the University of Bristol and who is leading the project, says this is the first time soft robotics technologies have been used to address the many rehabilitation and health care needs in one single type of wearable device.


“The wearable clothing could replace the stair lift in the home and other bulky and uncomfortable mobility and stability aids,” he told Impolite Science.


“There is a great need for assist and rehabilitation aids for both the elderly and people with disabilities, Rossiter continues, “We are all different, so these technologies must be adaptable and versatile.  Conventional solutions, such as exoskeletons, are built from rigid materials and employ conventional motors and gears, which severely limit their adaptability, comfort and safety. Soft robotic clothing, on the other hand, is compliant, safe and adapts to the human body.  It has the potential to get people out of their wheelchairs, prevent falls and to greatly increase mobility, independence and dignity.”


Soft robotics is a relatively new technology, which is under development for many applications, including ‘soft robots’, which mimic the movements of organisms such as snakes and worms. According to Rossiter, such automatons could be highly suited to rescue situations, for example, sending robots in to collapsed buildings after an earthquake. “They would be much more able to worm their way into the rubble and find trapped people than conventional rigid robots”, he says.


The clothing will be developed using the latest wearable soft robotic, nanoscience, 3D fabrication, functional electrical stimulation and full-body monitoring technologies.


“We are working on the materials as part of this project and some of this is based on previously developed reactive polymers, or ‘artificial ‘muscles’.  We will target the materials development, from the design of new nano-particles upwards, directly towards the application of soft robotic clothing,” says Rossiter.


The clothing will include control systems that monitor the wearer and adapt to give the most suitable assistance, working with the body’s own muscles.  For patients needing rehabilitation, the smart clothing can initially provide strong support and subsequently reduce assistance as the patient recovers mobility and strength.


“We must carefully balance the technology demands and capabilities with the needs and feelings of the users,” says Rossiter. “We need these clothes to not only be strong and adaptable but also comfortable, aesthetically pleasing, easy to clean and hygienic.  Many patients issued with current assist devices and prosthetics don't use them because they are not happy with how they look and feel.  We want to tackle this head on in the design stage of this project by involving the users and patients directly in the research.”


The research team hopes to develop clothing that provides complete automatic control.  “When the clothing senses that you are about to walk up stairs it automatically gives you the power boost you need.  To do this, it monitors your body and limb positions and estimates your intent,” says Rossiter.


The 3-year research project is funded by a £2 million grant from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) and will begin in July. Rossiter estimates that it will take about 10 years, through pre-clinical and clinical trial, to adoption in the NHS and wider use. “Hopefully, we can do this faster!” he says. 


This story is based on a press release from the University of Bristol



Scientists discover the greatest absence of evolution ever reported:
an organism that didn’t evolve in more than 2 billion years


Image courtesy of J.W.Schopf


A team of scientists studying some of the world’s most ancient rocks in western Australia, discovered that a type of deep-sea microorganism appears not to have evolved over a period of more than 2 billion years.


They examined sulphur bacteria, microorganisms that are 1.8 billion years old and were preserved in rocks in coastal waters. They found that the bacteria look the same as bacteria of the same region from 2.3 billion years ago -- and that both are indistinguishable from modern sulphur bacteria found in mud off of the coast of Chile.

"It seems astounding that life has not evolved for more than 2 billion years -- nearly half the history of Earth," says UCLA’s Professor J William Schopf, the study's lead author. "Given that evolution is a fact, this lack of evolution needs to be explained."


If microorganisms are well-adapted to their simple, very stable physical and biological environment, there is no need for them to evolve. If they did, Schopf points out, that would have shown that our understanding of Darwinian evolution was seriously flawed. These findings fit perfectly with Darwin’s ideas, he says.


The fossils Schopf analysed date back to the ‘Great Oxidation Event’, when Earth's oxygen levels rose substantially, between 2.2 billion and 2.4 billion years ago (the Earth is believed to be 4.6 billion years old). The event also produced a dramatic increase in sulphate and nitrate -- the only nutrients the microorganisms would have needed to survive in their seawater mud environment -- which the scientists say enabled the bacteria to thrive and multiply.


Schopf used several techniques to analyse the fossils, including Raman spectroscopy, which enables scientists to look inside rocks to determine their composition and chemistry, and confocal laser scanning microscopy, which renders fossils in 3D. “The rocks in the geological sequences studied have been dated by the radioactive decay of elements in their minerals,” explains Schopf to Impolite Science. “Dating techniques have improved vastly since I was a student; dates can be determined by multiple techniques, to +/- a few million years (commonly, even for 3,500 million year old rocks, +/- 5 million years).”


Schopf’s next  job on this particular project is to formally describe and name the fossils they’ve discovered, all of which are new to science.


“Our task is to document the early history of life,” he tells Impolite Science. “When I started working in this field (in 1961), the accepted fossil record was known to extend back only to around 550 million years. The work of my colleagues and I has extended the known record of life to 3,500 million years, an increase of seven-fold.  Our job now is to fill in the gaps in the known record of life and to understand how life, the planet and Earth's atmosphere have evolved together over an enormous sweep of geological time.”


Story Source:

The above is based on a story published on the University of California - Los Angeles’ website.

Journal Reference: J. William Schopf, Anatoliy B. Kudryavtsev, Malcolm R. Walter, Martin J. Van Kranendonk, Kenneth H. Williford, Reinhard Kozdon, John W. Valley, Victor A. Gallardo, Carola Espinoza, David T. Flannery. Sulfur-cycling fossil bacteria from the 1.8-Ga Duck Creek Formation provide promising evidence of evolution's null hypothesis. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2015; 201419241 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1419241112




Sarah Barnett

About the Writer

Sarah is Impolite Conversation's science editor.


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