Good Thinking

Snake skin-inspired shoe grips designed to save seniors

Snake skin-inspired shoe grips...
A commercialized version of the grips could soon be available
A commercialized version of the grips could soon be available
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A demonstration of the gripping action
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A demonstration of the gripping action
A commercialized version of the grips could soon be available
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A commercialized version of the grips could soon be available

A couple of years ago, Harvard University scientists copied the structure of snake skin to create a soft-bodied robot that gripped the ground as it moved. Now, they've applied that same thinking to shoe grips that could help keep seniors from falling.

Developed in partnership with MIT, the grips take the form of thin, flexible steel sheets with a snake-scale-like pattern cut into them. As was the case with the soft robot, that pattern – consisting of dozens of interlocked "scales" – is based on a Japanese paper-cutting art known as kirigami.

When the sole of the shoe is flat against the ground, the grip is likewise smooth and flat. As the wearer steps forward, though, they shift their weight from the heel to the toe, causing the sole and the attached grip to bend. This in turn causes the individual sharp-edged scales to pop out of the grip, digging into the ground.

A demonstration of the gripping action
A demonstration of the gripping action

The grips are substantially lighter than the crampons used by many people to keep from slipping on icy sidewalks, plus they're reportedly easier to get on and off of existing shoes. More importantly, though, when tested on surfaces such as ice, they also outperformed the crampons at creating friction.

"Falls are the leading cause of the death for older adults and the second leading cause of occupational-related deaths," says MIT's Asst. Prof. Giovanni Traverso, co-corresponding author of a paper on the research. "If we could control and increase the friction between us and the ground, we could reduce the risk of these types of falls, which not only cost lives but billions of dollars in medical bills every year."

The scientists are now seeking partnerships with companies that may be interested in commercializing the technology.

Source: Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences

2 comments
piperTom
Sounds good -- for ice. How does it deal with mud, sand, or leaf litter? Clogged up? Also, is it for outdoor use only. What would it do to my carpet or my hardwood floors?
ljaques
That flexible stainless sole is likely to rip up everything you walk on, sir! LOL. I think that if all older men got off the leather-soled shoes and into tennies (tennis shoes/sneakers), much of the falling would go away. Ditto women and their slick soled flats or low heeled shoes. The really elderly (those I fondly like to call The Ancients) need something in-between. They can't lift their feet far enough off the carpet to keep from tripping on every step when in tennies. Also NAIL DOWN those silly throw rugs in their houses. They cause more tripping than anything else (after shoes.)