Child smiling and holding his hands up in the air

Robot clothes could help children with cerebral palsy move

Image credit: Foto 73980289 © Jarenwicklund |

UC Riverside engineers in California are developing low-cost, robotic 'clothing' to help children with cerebral palsy gain control over their arm movements.

Enabled by a $1.5m grant from the US National Science Foundation, the UC Riverside scientists are looking at novel approaches to clothing, which will also facilitate more natural limb functioning for children with conditions such as cerebral palsy. 

Cerebral palsy is the most common cause of serious physical disability in childhood. However, the robots that have traditionally been designed to help patients are rigid and not comfortable to wear. In contrast, the devices envisioned for this project are meant to offer long-term daily assistance for those living with this condition, to improve their quality of life. 

"Hard materials don't interact well with humans," said Jonathan Realmuto, UCR assistant professor of mechanical engineering and project lead. "What we're going for by using materials like nylon and elastic are essentially robotic garments."

The scientists' vision of the garments is that they will contain sealed, airtight regions that can inflate, making them temporarily rigid, and providing the force for movement.

"Let's say you want to flex the elbow for a bicep curl. We can inject air into specially designed bladders embedded in the fabric that would propel the arm forward," Realmuto said. 

Concept illustration of the proposed robotic garment.

Concept illustration of the proposed robotic garment. / Jonathan Realmuto/UCR

Image credit: Jonathan Realmuto/UCR

The project will focus not only on constructing the robot, but also on developing the algorithms that teach the machine to predict movements the wearer wants to execute.

"One of the critical challenges in providing movement assistance is interpreting a person's intention. We want a 'volitional controller', so the robot behaves in terms of what the human wants to do," Realmuto said. 

To achieve this, the researchers have looked at using a variety of small sensors on the sleeves to detect small voltages generated by muscles when they contract. These sensors will feed the voltage data into an algorithm that will be trained to extract the wearer's intention from them.

Using widely available textiles, rather than traditional, rigid materials will likely keep the cost of the sleeves low. In addition, the team intends to minimise the use of sophisticated electronics, which will also help reduce overall costs for patients.

Experimental setup for previous iterations of the device

Experimental setup for previous iterations of the device / Jonathan Realmuto/UCR

Image credit: Jonathan Realmuto/UCR

This project is being conducted in partnership with Children's Hospital of Orange County, where patients from a paediatric movement disorder clinic will help test and refine the prototypes.

Additionally, the research team will hold annual meetings at the hospital for each of the four years of the project. These meetings will include the patients and their families, as well as occupational therapists, and elicit their feedback on the technology as it develops.

"By centring stakeholders in our design process, we hope to develop a product that truly works for them," Realmuto said.

The development team views this work as enhancing independence not only for the paediatric patients themselves, but also for entire communities.

"If we can help kids brush their own teeth, pour water or open doors, actions that others take for granted, it's a huge win for them," Realmuto said. "But it's also a win for their families and caretakers."

Although this project is focused on children with movement disorders, the researchers hope that the technology can eventually be used for other applications and populations, including geriatric patients and other adults with movement issues.

"Our technology is universal," Realmuto said.

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