It seems like the right idea, at the right time, in the right place: Bring together a handful of UD’s top researchers, get the ideas percolating, and come up with “smart wearables.”
It’s called HensWEAR, and in its relatively brief existence, this cross-campus collaboration has already sparked some envelope-pushing ideas, inspired student-led innovations, and raised the possibility of commercial applications for a variety of people, from stroke survivors to athletes.
At its core, the Unidel-funded effort capitalizes on core UD strengths: entrepreneurship, rehabilitation, materials science, physical therapy, and fashion and apparel studies. By brainstorming, good ideas soon grow into real solutions, ranging from customized face masks for athletes to activity trackers for people with intellectual disabilities.
“Eventually, we hope to see them commercialized by our industry partners,” says Jill Higginson, the mechanical engineering professor who is helping lead the effort.
Here’s a look at one of the first efforts to emerge from these collaborating minds: an upper-body “active exoskeletal garment” that would help stroke survivors move their limbs with the help of embedded motors and cables, overseen by a computer that senses when the patient needs help.
As director of Neuromuscular Biomechanics Lab, Jill Higginson, associate professor of mechanical engineering, is using human movement analysis and musculoskeletal modeling to pinpoint placement of sensors on the suit, a crucial step for ensuring that patients’ receive just the right amount of help from the motors and cables.
As an expert in textile science and functional apparel design, Prof. Huantian Cao is in charge of “putting the pieces together” into a garment that meets the common critearia for wearability: It needs to be comfortable despite its high-tech components, and there has to be an aesthetic appeal, so that the patient will be more likely to wear it routinely.
Measuring and monitoring movements
Once equipped with the mechanics of motor-assisted movement, the garment needs some way to measure and monitor those movements. That’s where Henswear relies on mechanical/materials science engineering prof. Erik Thostenson, EG98M, 04PHD, and doctoral candidate Sagar Doshi, who are developing a groundbreaking method for turning the fabric itself into a measurement device. Once coated with a super-thin, super-light coating of carbon “nanotubes,” the fabric becomes capable of measuring movement through tiny changes in electrical resistance when stretched.
As director of the Human Robotics (HuRo) lab at UD, biomedical engineering professor Fabrizzio Sergi is working on computer algorithms that will be the “brains” of the system of motor-driven pulleys and cables that will sense when to give a mechanical boost to a patient’s movements. Motors would be attached to the back of the suit. Grad students Steve Buchanan and Cheyenne Smith helped push it all forward.
HensWEAR’s potential is bolstered by research from other top UD professors, including Michele Lobo, who is exploring the use of inflatable bladders to aid in arm movement. Prof. Martha Hall is busy working on customized body braces for injured UD athletes, and mechanical engineering prof. Michael Keefe is analyzing the minutia of how garments interact and bend with human movement. The project also includes Elisa Arch, Sean Healy and Adriana Gorea.