Japan's robot suit to bring hope to the disabled

Dec 12, 2010 by Miwa Suzuki

Japan's Cyberdyne may share its name with the company responsible for nuclear destruction and the killer robots of the "Terminator" movie series, but the similarities end there.

And if the idea of a helping those with disabilities walk sounds like the stuff of science fiction, think again: the real-life Cyberdyne is in the business of revolutionising lives.

The firm produces an exoskeleton device called the , or HAL, which in another sci-fi related coincidence shares its name with the devious computer in Stanley Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey".

It gives power to its wearer by anticipating and supporting the user's using sensors monitoring electric signals sent from the brain to the muscles. Current options are for a single leg device or both legs.

HAL has many potential applications, from assisting caregivers lift people to helping construction workers or even firefighters.

In one case, three weeks of training with HAL enabled a man who had suffered brain injuries to stand on his own feet after nine years in a wheelchair, said Cyberdyne CEO Yoshiyuki Sankai, professor at the University of Tsukuba.

The group is now gearing up for mass-production and started leasing the battery-powered suit to welfare facilities last year.

"Developing robots without utilising them in society would just be an extension of a hobby," Sankai, 52, said. "What I develop should be part of society and benefit people."

A Japanese adventurer with disabilities is planning to leave his wheelchair behind and walk up a medieval French World Heritage site next year with the lower-limb HAL.

Seiji Uchida, 48, who lost the ability to walk in a car accident 27 years ago, said earlier this year he has long dreamed of visiting the picturesque abbey of Mont Saint-Michel, set on a rocky islet in Normandy.

Uchida said his visit to the island where a steep and narrow trail leads to an abbey and former fortress was to "prove that it is possible for people with disabilities to visit the world's historic sites without relying on facilities like elevators".

Some 50 hospitals and homes for the elderly in Japan are using a lower-limb version of HAL to assist disabled people. Rental fees for both legs are 140,000-150,000 yen a month (1,600-1,800 dollars).

Cyberdyne plans to start leasing a full-body version for caregivers next year, which assists both arms and legs and allows users to carry a load of up to 70 kilogrammes (154 pounds) with one arm.

It aims to begin sales to consumers from 2015.

More than 60 people have signed up as regular visitors to Cyberdyne Studio, a walking-training version of the usual fitness clubs that opened in September in Tsukuba City northeast of Tokyo, using the lower-limb model.

Sankai's practicality-first approach is unique in a country where many researchers focus on high concept robotics with eye-catching, headline-grabbing humanoids and other machines that have little useful application in reality.

The professor is critical of research that has no use outside the laboratory.

"Many in the research and development field are motivated by their own interest. They produce a thing and then think, 'What could this be used for?'"

"Research isn't for just writing papers," he said.

Sankai has retained his enthusiasm since his days as a self-styled child scientist who practised melting aluminum in the backyard and built walkie-talkies from scratch.

He said he had wanted to develop robots since he was a child and remembers "odd experiments" he did such as giving a frog's leg an electric stimulus using a home-made radio-wave transmitter.

Sankai is now in talks with foreign companies such as France's Bouygue construction group.

"We are exploring cooperation outside the medical and welfare field, for ways to help heavy physical work," he said.

Bayer MaterialScience in the German conglomerate Bayer announced in October it would help Cyberdyne replace metal parts with high-quality plastics to pave the way for easier and cheaper production of the complex shaped suit.

HAL will also be tried out in hospitals in Denmark and Sweden.

Sankai plans to invite foreign students on training programmes at Tsukuba, educate them on using HAL and send them home with joint research contracts.

HAL could also be used by rescue workers, said Sankai.

"People from the fire and disaster management agency came to me and told me about rescuers who lost their lives while on duty," making him think an appropriate machine could save lives.

"I want to think about what our technology can contribute," Sankai said.

Explore further: Robots lending a helping hand to build planes

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Cyborg-walkers stride toward Japan's robotics future

Aug 03, 2009

Three Japanese cyborg look-alikes turned heads on busy Tokyo streets and subway trains Monday as they made their way to a robotics conference on a hot summer's day -- without breaking a sweat.

Motorized knee can make you run faster

Dec 22, 2009

(PhysOrg.com) -- Scientists at the Tsukuba University in Japan have come up with a motorized knee you can attach to your leg to make you run faster and use less muscle power.

'Welfare robots' to ease burden in greying Japan

Jul 29, 2010

Robotic wheelchairs, mechanical arms and humanoid waiters are among the cutting-edge inventions on show at a robotics fair in Japan, a country whose population is ageing rapidly.

Recommended for you

Robots lending a helping hand to build planes

Aug 26, 2014

Trying to squeeze into small enclosed areas, carrying out highly repetitive tasks, retiring with back injuries even while your expertise is needed: these everyday realities of working in aviation construction ...

C2D2 fighting corrosion

Aug 22, 2014

Bridges become an infrastructure problem as they get older, as de-icing salt and carbon dioxide gradually destroy the reinforced concrete. A new robot can now check the condition of these structures, even ...

Meet the "swarmies"- robotics' answer to bugs

Aug 22, 2014

(Phys.org) —A small band of NASA engineers and interns is about to begin testing a group of robots and related software that will show whether it's possible for autonomous machines to scurry about an alien ...

Hitchhiking robot reaches journey's end in Canada

Aug 21, 2014

A chatty robot with an LED-lit smiley face sent hitchhiking across Canada this summer as part of a social experiment reached its final destination Thursday after several thousand kilometers on the road.

User comments : 2

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

Ratfish
5 / 5 (1) Dec 12, 2010
Wow, I can't believe the company is named Cyberdyne and the device is "HAL". This does not bode well.
trekgeek1
not rated yet Dec 12, 2010
The recent virus based battery with the 10 fold increase in energy storage would be a great improvement to this HAL system.