Mon, Dec 13, 2010 - Page 10 News List

Japan’s robot suit aims to bring hope to the disabled

MEET ‘HAL’:Cyberdyne’s Hybrid Assistive Limb uses sensors to monitor signal sent from the brain to the muscles, allowing people confined to wheelchairs to walk again

AFP, TSUKUBA, JAPAN

Robot suit venture Cyberdyne CEO Yoshiyuki Sankai, center, introduces the “HAL” (Hybrid Assistive Limb) robot suit at the company’s studio in Tsukuba, Japan on Oct. 26.

PHOTO: AFP

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 robot suit helping those with disabilities walk sounds like the stuff of science fiction, think again: The real-life Cyberdyne is in the business of revolutionizing lives.

The firm produces an exoskeleton robot device called the Hybrid Assistive Limb, 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 body movements 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, a 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 utilizing 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 the region of 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.”

About 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 to ¥150,000 a month (US$1,600 to US$1,800).

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 70kg 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 approach of putting practicality first 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 practiced melting aluminum in the backyard and built walkie-talkies from scratch.

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