Interdisciplinary Research

Ruby Marshall

Ruby Marshall, Lecturer of Soft Robotics at the Institute for Design Informatics and PhD student in the Soft Systems group in the School of Engineering.

Bayes Innovation Fellows - Ruby
Bayes Innovation Fellows - Ruby Marshall

What is your research focus?  

My research focus is on actuated textiles in soft robotics. These are textiles woven from soft or compliant materials that can move and deform. So far, I have worked on pneumatic and hydraulically actuated textiles. I am passionate about expanding this further to look at alternative materials and actuation, with the intention of applying them to human-centred design.

I came into soft robotics when I started my PhD, after finishing my masters in aero-mechanical engineering, first with the intention of using actuated textiles to study the phenomenon of resonance in fish-like flapping propulsion systems. This use-case was interesting due to the textile being the fin itself. Rather than an actuator being added onto a fin, which would change the fin geometry and the subsequent fluid interaction, the textile-fin enables closer modelling of a real fish fin than any other system.

However, soft robotics is an inherently innovative subject area with applications focusing on assistive and rehabilitative aids, and robots for extreme environments. This connected with my motivation to understand and design systems that can help people and then also with my interest in sensory well-being. As my research developed, I began to focus more on the wider applications of this textile, beyond the initial use case, and look forward to how soft robotics can be used in real world settings.

What is your innovation idea? 

Variably-actuated wearable sensory devices for nervous system regulation with improved aesthetic design. This will help to address the issue of sensory well-being management by empowering the user to soothe their nervous system through the sensory input that they require. The variable nature of the concept means that during use it can be tailored to the user’s needs, whether that be in response to needing more or less sensory input from their environment.

This concept also has the potential to be customisable and modular to improve function, repair, and sustainability. The tactile nature of a wearable creates an input from device to user, this could include touch (pressure), texture, vibration and temperature but may be expanded to include other sensory input such as sound, and scent. I intend to produce first a manually actuated system and then develop an automated system to properly consider any safety concerns, with the idea of producing products that may appeal to a range of eventual selling prices.

Why does this idea matter, what impact will it have on the world and what problem will it solve? 

Although much of our world and technology innovation focuses on the digital, we remain sensory based beings with nervous systems which are conscious of our environment through our senses, not through conscious thought. Yet this is not always considered in the design of our environment. This is true for all human beings with a particular emphasis on certain conditions and ways of being that lead to nervous system and sensory difficulties such as hypo- and hyper-stimulation which can result in not only cognitive and mental health issues but also real physical pain. The range of conditions that may result in this are vast; from neuro-developmental conditions such as autism and ADHD, to mental health conditions such as PTSD and general anxiety. This may initially read as a specific target market, already a large one on its own, however the application of sensory devices for stress management and general well-being expands the potential applications to the wider public.

I believe there is great potential to innovate in this area as the medical sensory devices available are lacking in design thinking from both an aesthetic and multidisciplinary engineering and psychological perspective. Further, there are very few on the market for adults, despite sensory and nervous system difficulties being conditions that one does not grow out of and could be developed at any stage of life. In producing and marketing products with an improved design this research and blossoming multidisciplinary area could directly benefit society.

This idea personally matters to me due to my own lived experience of sensory difficulties. This is something I manage every day for my physical and mental wellbeing, to be able to engage with normal life. Although challenging, I have always taken the perspective that I have an understanding I can use to help others who experience similar.

What is the future of your research?

There is much left to do and the idea that we can always develop and innovate further is an exciting aspect of research. Applying soft robotics to sensory wellbeing is in its infancy today, but it won’t be forever. Once we’ve laid the foundations to interact with the world and take the research out of the lab, we’ll have uncountable paths available to us where we can improve people’s lives. Technical, ethical, administrative, this is the work of a lifetime.

What motivated you to apply to the Bayes Innovation Fellows programme and what do you hope to gain from it?

I am passionate about research that could help people and would like to learn more skills and knowledge for how to transfer research work to an area that can engage with the public. I am particularly motivated to push my research into real world applications as I am working on research from a lived experience viewpoint: not only do I understand the problem from a first-person perspective, but I am also understanding of the range of conditions for which sensory issues arise. Having spent my entire adult life studying and working in academia, aside from some summer internships, I would like to gain experience and understanding of how to engage with industry in a meaningful way that can have benefits for both my research and investors.

This programme could also be a great opportunity to meet potential collaborators or partners with whom to develop this idea. As my motivations are primarily on the research and engineering side, I would like to eventually work with colleagues knowledgeable in areas outside of my own. I believe more can be achieved through the combined value of a team than alone.


Design Informatics

The School of Engineering