There is a research team that is led by the University of Bristol's Jonathan Rossiter, who developed a prototype pair of mechanised slacks that could help people – from elderly and infirm to the otherwise disabled – walk without assistance.
"We are all going to get older and our mobility is going to reduce," Rossiter told the BBC. "What we want to do is give people that extra bit of boost, to maintain their independence as long as possible."
By wearing a pair of Lycra workout pants, the British scientists created what the BBC described as "air-filled bubbles of plastic" (so-called robotic muscles) that can raise a leg from the seated to standing position.
And while getting this technology into commercial trousers may take a decade or more, this marks a step toward a more ambulatory future. There are some 10 million people in the UK with disabilities, including old-age locomotion problems, according to Rossiter. And that number is expected to increase as the population ages, putting more pressure on mobility assistance.
With a £2 million ($2.6 million US dollars) grant from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), the Bristol professor teamed up with engineers from across the country to find a robotic solution to conventional aids. "Soft robotics can make materials and structures that behave in a really sophisticated way in contrast to conventional robotics," Rossiter said, citing organisms like the octopus: so sophisticated in its movement, sensing, and control that it can squeeze its gelatinous body into small spaces.
"We can take some of these capabilities and put them into artificial muscles, put them onto clothing," Rossiter added.
On display at last week's British Science Festival in Hull, the technology looks deceptively simple, like a string of cocktail sausages made of clear plastic, inflated with air. When blown up, the strand contracts and shortens – just like your muscles – to lift a weight or robotic leg.
Now, picture this mechanism arranged around a flesh-and-bone knee. Once inflated, the structure stiffens, automatically straightening the body part and lifting the leg. "It means you can stand more comfortably," Rossiter boasted.
Researchers have a long way to go before their devices go mainstream; the team is already eyeing electroactive polymers for quieter movement, as well as an embedded control system.
As an everyday accessory, this contraption could discourage people from using their own muscles, allowing them to atrophy. But as a rehabilitation device, it is ideal for helping to strengthen knees and legs.
"One of our goals is to replicate human muscle in an artificial form so that you can sew them into your trousers and you've got your power trousers," Rossiter told the BBC.