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Powered Suits Will Aid Care and Rehabilitation (August 28, 2003)

powerd suit
Testing a "powered suit" (Jiji)
"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 situations.

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 sites.

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.

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Related Web Sites
Sankai Yoshiyuki
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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