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Fri, Aug 22, 2003 - Page 12 News List

Japanese ready to launch `Robolegs' for commercial use

AFP , TOKYO

A student displays the prototype of the ''HAL-3.''

PHOTO: AFP

Japanese companies are preparing for the commercial launch of a "robot suit" that helps aged or physically disabled people walk, get up the stairs or seat themselves to relax without a chair.

Trading house Mitsui and Co and some 30 other Tokyo firms plan to set up a joint-venture in April or May next year to market the powered suit developed by Yoshiyuki Sankai, professor and engineer at Tsukuba University, officials said yesterday.

"This is neither a robot in machine factories nor a one for amusement like a pet robot. This is a brand-new proposal projecting a future image of relations between people and robots," Sankai said.

"The suit practically supports people's life, focusing on the strong point of robots," Sankai said.

The powered suit, code-named HAL-3 (Hybrid Assistive Leg), consists of a computer and batteries in the backpack as well as four actuators attached around the knees and hip joints.

The motor-powered devices guide movement of the legs as the computer calculates the user's next motion by detecting faint electric signals from the muscle, the professor said.

With the equipment, the user can walk at a speed of 4km per hour with little physical exertion and avoid the jerky stop-go moves of ordinary robots.

As a first step, the new venture plans to lease or sell 10 prototypes next year, Sankai said.

A mid-term goal for the project is to sell some 100 suits a year at a price of ?1 million (US$8,440).

Sankai also noted that Japan's greying society was a key consideration behind the development of the suit.

"As the country is heading rapidly towards an ageing society, the demand for such a robotic support system will certainly grow," the professor said.

"Not only the elderly but also disabled people will be able to live comfortably, leaving heavy physical tasks to the suit," he said.

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