ROBOT SUIT TO ENTER MASS PRODUCTION
Device Expected to Help Movement of Humans
Japan is a world leader in robotics, and in October 2008 a Japanese company will become the first in the world to begin mass-producing a robot that assists humans in moving their limbs. A research team led by University of Tsukuba Professor Sankai Yoshiyuki has developed the device, which is called Robot Suit HAL (Hybrid Assistive Limb) TM. Sankai is the CEO of Cyberdyne Inc., the company that plans to begin making this robot suit available for rental through sales outlets.
How the Robot Suit Works
As it supports the wearer's own limb movements, the robot suit must detect how the wearer is trying to move his or her arms and legs and quickly respond. Most of the robots that have been developed so far in this field rely on sensors to detect motion and then activate motors.
This method, however, has some drawbacks. First, there is a slight time lag from when the wearer moves a muscle to when the robot responds. Second, people who are unable to move their arms and legs can't use such a robot at all. These issues had been viewed as obstacles to a wide commercialization of robot suits. Robot Suit HAL, however, has overcome these limitations using a unique method that senses bioelectric signals sent from brain, rather than detecting muscle movements.
When you want to move your body, your brain sends out an electric signal that is received by your muscles, which then contract, thus producing motion. This electric signal travels to the muscles via the body's nerves, generating a slight voltage of electricity on the surface of the skin. This is known as a bioelectric signal, and Robot Suit HAL detects them using the sensors placed around the wearer's body. Depending on the voltage running the surface of the skin, the computer inside Robot Suit HAL analyzes the signal and sets the appropriate motors in motion.
A Variety of Potential Uses
When a person wearing Robot Suit HAL picks up an object that weighs 40 kg, he/she feels as if it weighed only a few kilograms. Robot Suit HAL is therefore expected to have a wide range of applications, such as assisting carers, helping people with physical disabilities to move, and assisting people performing jobs that require a great deal of physical strength. In order to facilitate the commercialization process, Professor Sankai and others formed Cyberdyne Inc. in 2004. In October 2008, the company plans to move into a factory currently under construction that will allow them to manufacture up to 500 suits a year.
Several other types of robot suits are also under development in Japan. Toyama Shigeki, a Professor of Tokyo University of Agriculture and Technology, leads a team that is currently developing a power-assist suit, which will be used to help agricultural work. Their goal is to place the product on the market within the next few years. In addition, Matsushita Electric Industrial Co. has set up Activelink Co., a venture business, to work to develop power-assist suits. (August 2008)
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