Australian engineers have developed a shape-shifting, smart textile that has the potential to help people with disabilities walk again.

The material is constructed from tiny, soft artificial ‘muscle’ fibres that can turn a two-dimensional material into 3D structures.

The University of NSW Graduate School of Biomedical Engineering research team that developed the textile believes it will have a wide range of applications in multiple fields.

Thanh Nho Do who led the project explains the material’s artificial ‘muscles’ are long silicon tubes filled with fluid which are manipulated using hydraulics.

The shape-shifting material can move like a robot and the ‘muscles’ can be programmed to contract or expand into a variety of shapes.

Dr Do envisages the fabric could be used as a medical compression device with its thin, flexible, and highly conformable structure offering better outcomes for people needing help with movement.

“We have given our smart textiles the expansion and contraction ability in the exact same way as human muscle fibres,” Dr Do said.

People with poor blood circulation could also benefit from smart garments that contract to apply pressure to superficial veins and help with blood supply.

Athletes could also use compression garments to recover faster and reduce muscle soreness after training.

Possibly the greatest benefit of the textile would be for people who are paralysed.

“We envision our material could be used to develop soft exoskeletons to enable people with disabilities to walk again or augment the human performance,” Dr Do said.

“Most existing technologies in that field are still based around rigid robotic suits.

“But it is our hope that we could create a lightweight, soft exoskeleton that looks and feels just like leggings which can be worn like normal clothing.

“This could then aid those with impaired mobility to walk,” he said.

The project has received some funding from the National Heart Foundation as the textile has the potential to help failing hearts pump blood around the body.

UNSW Professor Nigel Lovell said the textile could be used to create soft robots that can shape shift and be used as a lifting mechanism.

“Such as when rescuing people from collapsed buildings or other hazardous environments, or as a soft tubular gripper – in our experiments we could lift objects around 346 times the material’s own weight,” he said.

The research is published in Scientific Reports and Soft Robotics

Maureen Dettre
(Australian Associated Press)