Japan's robot suit to bring hope to the disabled

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 revolutionising 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, 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 utilising 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 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".

Some 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 140,000-150,000 yen a month (1,600-1,800 dollars).

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 70 kilogrammes (154 pounds) 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 practicality-first approach 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 practised melting aluminum in the backyard and built walkie-talkies from scratch.

He said he had wanted to develop robots since he was a child and remembers "odd experiments" he did such as giving a frog's leg an electric stimulus using a home-made radio-wave transmitter.

Sankai is now in talks with foreign companies such as France's Bouygue construction group.

"We are exploring cooperation outside the medical and welfare field, for ways to help heavy physical work," he said.

Bayer MaterialScience in the German conglomerate Bayer announced in October it would help Cyberdyne replace metal parts with high-quality plastics to pave the way for easier and cheaper production of the complex shaped suit.

HAL will also be tried out in hospitals in Denmark and Sweden.

Sankai plans to invite foreign students on training programmes at Tsukuba, educate them on using HAL and send them home with joint research contracts.

HAL could also be used by rescue workers, said Sankai.

"People from the fire and disaster management agency came to me and told me about rescuers who lost their lives while on duty," making him think an appropriate machine could save lives.

"I want to think about what our technology can contribute," Sankai said.

Sport
footballLIVE: All the latest from today's Premier League matches
News
newsNew images splice vintage WWII photos with modern-day setting
Arts and Entertainment
The star dances on a balcony in the video
music
News
Jennifer Lawrence's Katniss Everdeen learns that Peeta is still alive in Mockingjay Part 1
peopleListen to the actress sing in The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Pt 1
PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Arts and Entertainment
music
News
Evidence collected by academics suggests that people find the right work-life balance at 58-years-old, towards the end of their working lives
news
News
i100
Voices
Ukip leader Nigel Farage arrives at the Rochester by-election count
voicesIs it any wonder that Thornberry, Miliband, and Cameron have no idea about ordinary everyday life?
Sport
sportComment: Win or lose Hamilton represents the best of Britain
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Senior Project Manager

    £45000 - £65000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

    Recruitment Genius: Shopfitter

    Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join a successful an...

    Recruitment Genius: Digital Sales Account Manager

    £25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Digital Sales Account Manager...

    Recruitment Genius: Trainee Sales Account Manager

    £20000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Trainee Sales Account Manager...

    Day In a Page

    US immigration: President Obama ready to press ahead with long-promised plan to overhaul 'broken system' - but will it get past a Republican-controlled Congress?

    Immigration: Obama's final frontier

    The President is ready to press ahead with the long-promised plan to overhaul America's 'broken system' - but will it get past a Republican-controlled Congress?
    Bill Cosby rape allegations explained: Why are these allegations coming out now? Why didn’t these women come forward earlier? And why has nobody taken legal action?

    Bill Cosby rape allegations explained

    Why are these allegations coming out now? Why has nobody taken legal action? And what happens next for the man once thought of as 'America's Dad'
    Four years of excruciating seizures caused by the 1cm tapeworm found burrowing through a man's brain

    You know that headache you’ve got?

    Four years of excruciating seizures caused by the 1cm tapeworm found burrowing through a man's brain
    Travelling to work by scooter is faster than walking and less sweaty than cycling, so why aren’t we all doing it?

    Scoot commute

    Travelling to work by scooter is faster than walking and less sweaty than cycling, so why aren’t we all doing it?
    Paul Robeson: The story of how an American icon was driven to death to be told in film

    The Paul Robeson story

    How an American icon was driven to death to be told in film
    10 best satellite navigation systems

    Never get lost again: 10 best satellite navigation systems

    Keep your vehicle going in the right direction with a clever device
    Paul Scholes column: England must learn to keep possession and dictate games before they are exposed by the likes of Germany and Brazil

    Paul Scholes column

    England must learn to keep possession and dictate games before they are exposed by the likes of Germany and Brazil
    Michael Dawson: I’ll thank Spurs after we win says defender as he prepares to return with Hull

    Michael Dawson: I’ll thank Spurs after we win

    Hull defender faces his struggling former club on Sunday ready to show what they are missing. But he says he will always be grateful to Tottenham
    Frank Warren column: Dr Wu has big plans for the professionals yet he should stick to the amateur game

    Frank Warren column

    Dr Wu has big plans for the professionals yet he should stick to the amateur game
    Synagogue attack: Fear unites both sides of Jerusalem as minister warns restoring quiet could take 'months'

    Terror unites Jerusalem after synagogue attack

    Rising violence and increased police patrols have left residents of all faiths looking over their shoulders
    Medecins sans Frontieres: The Ebola crisis has them in the headlines, but their work goes far beyond West Africa

    'How do you carry on? You have to...'

    The Ebola crisis has Medecins sans Frontieres in the headlines, but their work goes far beyond West Africa
    Isis extends its deadly reach with suicide bombing in Kurdish capital

    Isis extends its deadly reach with suicide bombing in Kurdish capital

    Residents in what was Iraq’s safest city fear an increase in jihadist attacks, reports Patrick Cockburn
    Underwater photography competition winners 2014 - in pictures

    'Mysterious and inviting' shot of diver wins photography competition

    Stunning image of cenote in Mexico takes top prize
    Sir John Major: Negative West End portrayals of politicians put people off voting

    Sir John Major hits out at theatres

    Negative West End portrayals of politicians put people off voting
    Kicking Barbie's butt: How the growth of 3D printing enabled me to make an army of custom-made figurines

    Kicking Barbie's butt

    How the growth of 3D printing enabled toy-designer to make an army of custom-made figurines