Researchers to build smart trousers and sensitive bionic hand


University of Leeds researchers will play key roles in two innovative projects using futuristic engineering to assist the human body.

One multi-university team has been awarded £1.4 million to work on a bionic hand that transmits touch sensations directly into the brain.

A second team will develop a pair of smart trousers with artificial “muscles” in its soft fabric to support the movement of disabled and older people.

The projects are part of a £5.3 million programme to transform the design of assistive and rehabilitative devices funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), the main UK government funding body for engineering.

Dr Rory O’Connor, Senior Lecturer in Rehabilitation Medicine in the University of Leeds’ Faculty of Medicine and Health, who is involved in both projects, said: “These are not pie-in-the-sky ideas. We are start work now and the funders have set us the challenge of delivering workable devices in three years.”

The Bionic hand team brings together experts from the universities of Leeds, Essex, Keele, Southampton and Imperial College London and is led by Newcastle University. It aims to develop an artificial hand that can sense temperature, pressure and shear (forces moving across its “skin”) and transmit this real-time sensory information directly into the brain.

Reminiscent of Luke Skywalker’s artificial hand, the electrodes in the bionic limb would wrap around the nerve endings in the arm. 

Dr O’Connor, who is also Consultant in Rehabilitation Medicine at Leeds Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust, is the clinical advisor on the project and Dr Paul Steenson, senior lecturer in the University of Leeds’ School of Electronic and Electrical Engineering, will make the electrodes that provide the crucial bridge between the nervous system and the bionic hand.

Dr Steenson said: “We need microelectrodes made from flexible plastics that do not damage the tissue in the way that hard materials would. We need to build these connections at a minute scale: the diameter of the nerves can be smaller than the width of a human hair—and we want to be able to connect to collections of nerve fibres of this size within various nerve bundles.”

Other parts of the team will build fingertip sensors to give the prosthesis a realistic sense of touch; develop ways of sensing the hand’s position and movement; and work out how to translate electronic signals to a form the brain understands.

Dr Kianoush Nazarpour, lecturer in Biomedical Engineering at Newcastle University, who is leading the project, said: “The UK leads the way in the design of prosthetic limbs but until now one of the limiting factors has been the technology to allow the hand to communicate with the brain. If we can design a system that allows this two-way communication, it would help people to naturally reach out and pick up a glass, for example, whilst maintaining eye contact in a conversation, or pick up an apple without bruising it.”

Dr O’Connor said: “The current designs are like a plug and socket. The socket fits over the end of the limb and picks up signals from the muscles. The prosthesis fits onto this and by learning to flex certain muscles the patient can work the hand. The drawback is that for many patients – particularly survivors of trauma – the muscle ends are too damaged to be able to use the limb.

“What patients tell us is they want something that is more intuitive and more closely replicates the natural movement and feel of a real hand and that is what we hope to achieve through this project.”

The second team involving Leeds researchers will develop soft robotic clothing to help mobility. The £2.5 million project is led by the University of Bristol and will also draw on expertise at the universities of the West of England, Nottingham, Strathclyde, Southampton and Loughborough.

The interim objective, expected to be delivered in eighteen months, is to develop a “smart sock.” People recovering from ankle injuries and other damage such as strokes can suffer from “foot drop,” struggling to pull their foot upwards when taking a stride. The fabric in the “smart sock” will be designed to provide the force needed to get a foot into the right position.

By the end of the project, in three years, the team plans to develop a pair of “smart trousers” that give added bionic strength to help wearers climb stairs and stand up. The trousers could also help avoid falls by detecting and providing extra support when the user is losing balance.

Dr O’Connor, the team’s clinical expert, said: “The first thing you need to do is get Wallace and Gromit’s ‘techno trousers’ out of your mind. We will be using very sophisticated soft materials with what are in effect motors integrated into the fabric to exert forces that move and support parts of the body.
“These fabrics will be coupled with intelligent control systems. When the system senses the user needs their ankle to flex, the fabric will flex upward. When they need their knee to bend, it will bend the knee. They will feel like a pair of tight trousers or tights.”

Dr Abbas Dehghani, Senior Lecturer in the University of Leeds’ School of Mechanical Engineering, will develop the intelligent control system to direct when and how the fabric moves.

“The system has to be able to work out what the user is trying to do; it is no good the trousers trying to help you walk, if you actually want to sit down,” Dr Dehghani said.

“My job is to develop that top-level intelligent control and the systems that work out and coordinate the movement of the clothing to support that activity.”

Both projects came out of an EPSRC “sandpit” event at the start of September 2014. Leading academics were invited to take part in a week-long residential workshop to thrash out key challenges in assistive and rehabilitative technology and assemble multidisciplinary teams to address them. More University of Leeds academics were invited to the sandpit than from any other university. Leeds researchers will play key roles in two of the three winning research projects.

The third EPSRC “sandpit” project, led by the University of Warwick and involving the universities of Cardiff , Kent, Oxford Brookes, Salford, York and University College London, has been awarded £1.86 million to develop cheap, disposable, unobtrusive bio-sensors such as temporary tattoos and smart watches to use with patients who use wheelchairs or prosthetics as well as older people. 

Philip Nelson, Chief Executive of EPSRC said: “These research studies will improve patients’ lives, allow greater independence and benefit patients with a wide range of mobility and co-ordination difficulties. With the UK’s ageing population and a rise in disabilities EPSRC investment in healthcare research has a national impact.”


Further information

Dr O’Connor, Dr Steenson and Dr Dehghani are available for interview. Contact Chris Bunting, Senior Press Officer, University of Leeds; phone: 0113 343 2049 or email

Please contact the University of Leeds press office for images.