Powered Suits Will Aid Care and Rehabilitation (August 28, 2003)
"Powered suits" that support disabled or elderly
individuals in their physical activities are now under development. One type of
powered suit is designed to be worn by people who have difficulty walking or performing
actions such as standing up or sitting down. These suits work by supplementing
the wearer's own physical strength and can be used for everyday activities such
as walking or for rehabilitation. Another type of powered suit is designed to
be worn by caregivers and boosts their strength to help them perform physical
tasks, such as lifting the people they care for. Researchers from both industry and academia
are involved in developing these suits and are continually improving their designs
with the goal of making them available for practical use in care and rehabilitation
|Testing a "powered suit" (Jiji)
Suit Up for a Power Boost
A team of University of Tsukuba researchers led by Professor Sankai
Yoshiyuki has developed a suit that supplements the power of the wearer's
legs. This suit has two main components: a metal frame that externally supports
the legs and has a motor and sensors attached, and a regulator that is carried
on the user's back. As the wearer tries to move, the sensors affixed to the surface
of the skin instantaneously pick up the faint electrical signals transmitted from
the brain to the muscles and attempt to make the motor's action complement the
motion of the wearer. With all of its components, the suit weighs some 23 kilograms,
but because the heel section is in contact with the ground, the weight is not
much of a burden to the user.
As this lower-body suit provides support by moving in a manner that virtually
duplicates the wearer's will, it offers high hopes for use as a walking aid or
rehabilitation tool for elderly or disabled individuals with reduced physical
strength. The suit can also perform preprogrammed actions, a feature that offers
an array of potential applications. For example, it could be used in sports training.
In this scenario, muscle signals from an elite athlete would first be input into
the device. Users could put on the suit and directly experience the movements
of the athlete; this experience would help them get more out of their training.
Sankai and his team also plan to develop an upper-body suit that would boost the
user's arm strength. Just one example of many potential applications is that the
upper-body suit could be worn by rescue teams engaged in operations at disaster
The work on the suits by Sankai and his team has attracted the attention of Mitsui
and Co. and a group of small businesses in Ota Ward, Tokyo, which is known as a hive of innovative business activity. The
firms have agreed to cooperate with the University of Tsukuba in taking the development
of the suits to the next level.
At the Kanagawa Institute of Technology, meanwhile, a team of researchers led by Professor
Yamamoto Keijiro of the Department of Welfare Systems Engineering is conducting
trials of a "power assist suit" to be worn by caregivers. When the wearer
of this suit tries to lift someone, sensors detect the
hardness of their muscles, and a pump on the back of the suit springs into action,
inflating airbag-like compressed-air actuators positioned in the arm, lower back,
and knee areas. The inflated actuators provide support for the muscles of the
wearer. In Japan's graying society, in an increasing number of cases the only
people available to care for elderly people are family members who are elderly
themselves. Caring for someone is physically demanding work, and cases of physical
injuries such as strained backs are on the rise. The suit supports this physical
labor by giving wearers approximately twice their natural strength.
Industry and Academia Working Together
Many other organizations in Japan are involved in the development of power suits.
One example is Matsushita Electric Industrial Co., which in June 2003 established a new company to research
"wearable assistance" technologies. The new company is building a research
organization, made up of alliances between academia and industry, which will team
up with university laboratories to research and develop prototypes of wearable
care and rehabilitation aids. As its first project, the research organization
plans to develop equipment that supports the activities of individuals with physical
disabilities. It hopes to put a model into practical use by 2008.
With a number of different teams working to improve the lives of both caregivers
and care receivers by developing powered suits, it may not be long before such
devices are a regular feature of a society where the need for nursing care will
increase as the population ages.
Related Web Sites
Mitsui and Co.
Kanagawa Institute of Technology
Matsushita Electric Industrial Co.
Copyright (c) 2004 Web Japan. Edited by Japan Echo Inc. based on domestic Japanese news sources. Articles presented here are offered for reference purposes and do not necessarily represent the policy or views of the Japanese Government.
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