According to a recent University of Portsmouth study, almost one in five women avoid exercise because of breast-related problems, such as pain, embarrassment about excessive breast bounce and not being able to find the right sports bra. That’s around 20 percent of women who may be missing out on the health benefits of physical activity. Fortunately, help is on the way in the form of the Bionic Bra, which quickly adjusts to breast movement, providing more – or less – support as required.

The bra has been in development for more than 15 years at the University of Wollongong (UOW) in Australia, where researchers have been investigating problems associated with sports bras and women's breast movement during physical activity. The researchers say technology is only now catching up with their vision, providing enhanced opportunities to use intelligent componentry and “smart yarn” to build a responsive and comfortable sports bra.

"We were inspired to make a bra that could respond to the needs of women – to tighten up when there is a need for more breast support but to relax when additional support is not required, so women could enjoy the health benefits associated with an active lifestyle in comfort," says Professor Julie Steele, Director of Breast Research Australia (BRA) at UOW.

Research shows that around 85 percent of women wear an incorrectly fitted bra, which can lead to headaches, backaches, neck pain and even ulnar nerve dysfunction (numbness in the little finger), caused by bra straps digging in to the nerves that cross the shoulders.

“Advances in materials science that enabled advanced sensing and actuating technologies with soft materials, means we are in a unique position to tackle this problem,” says Professor Steele.

The Bionic Bra integrates novel sensing materials, including newly developed customized fibers created using wet spinning techniques. The fibers are "knitted" into wearable structures, and the sensing components detect when a women’s breast starts to move more or faster, for example if you suddenly stand up and start to run for a bus.

"The advent of approaches such as 3D printing has enabled us to assemble structures containing new sensing technologies to more accurately monitor movement and new artificial muscle technologies to control it,” says Professor Gordon Wallace, Executive Research Director of the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Electromaterials Science based at UOW.

The integrated actuating technology is based on the use of fibers made from coiled fishing line to develop “artificial muscles.” The artificial muscles receive messages from the sensors telling the bra to tighten up and contract to help provide additional breast support. In the proof of concept prototype, the actuators are located on the back of the bra, but Professor Steele says it is likely they will be located elsewhere in the final version.

In its prototype state, the bra looks rather large and cumbersome, but now that proof of principle has been demonstrated, designers will be brought in to ensure the final product is aesthetically pleasing – because although functionality and comfort are essential, most of us also want to wear something that looks good, too. Using 3D printing technologies, coupled with advanced fiber knitting and braiding, the UOW team say they are in a position to rapidly prototype different componentry depending on the needs of the designer.

There is still quite a way to go to get the Bionic Bra from the bench top to the washing machine. The researchers don't anticipate that all componentry will be washable, so here too design will be critical to ensure functionality as well as aesthetics.

While the Bionic Bra will initially be aimed at active women, as well as the one in five women who would like to be active but can’t find a supportive, comfortable exercise bra, it will ultimately be suitable for any woman who needs a responsive bra for work and play.

While other manufacturers have used technology to develop bras that provide early warning of breast cancer, prevent emotional eating or, at the more bizarre end of the support garment spectrum only unlock for true love, the Bionic Bra has the potential to transform bra design for daily life.

The bra was discussed at the Opening Keynote Address of the 9th Australasian Biomechanics Conference.

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