October 7, 2008

Japanese Build Robotic Suit For Mobility Impaired

Starting Friday, a robotic suit that reads brain signals and helps people with mobility problems will be available to rent in Japan for $2,200 a month.

The invention may prove to be a valuable asset for the disabled and elderly.

HAL - short for "hybrid assistive limb" - is a computerized suit with sensors that read brain signals directing limb movement through the skin.

Worn around the waist, the 22-pound battery-operated computer system captures the brain signals and relays them to mechanical leg braces strapped to the thighs and knees, which then provide robotic assistance to people as they walk.

HAL will soon be mass-produced by Cyberdyne, a new company in Tsukuba outside Tokyo. Two people demonstrated the suits at the company's headquarters on Tuesday.

A video demonstration also showed a partially paralyzed person getting up from a chair and walking slowly wearing the HAL suit.

Yoshiyuki Sankai, a University of Tsukuba professor who designed HAL, said he and his team are ready to present this to the world.

A full device that covers the entire body is also being designed, though it is unclear when it will be available commercially, said Sankai, who has worked on robot suits since 1992 and is also Cyberdyne's chief executive.

HAL comes in three sizes - small, medium and large - and also has a one-leg version for a 150,000 yen, or $1,500, monthly rental fee.

Noel Sharkey, professor at the University of Sheffield in the UK, said HAL will have wide-ranging benefits for the elderly others with movement disabilities.

"HAL can only lead to extending the abilities of the elderly and keep them out of care for longer," Sharkey said.

It is unclear when HAL will go on sale to the public or what the price tag will be. Cyberdyne said its policy is not to reveal how much it costs to manufacture the device.

Robotics technology is common in manufacturing sectors, but product liability concerns restrict its widespread use in everyday life.

But the HAL technology is devoted to social welfare purposes only, Sankai said, adding he has refused requests from military officials to share it.

Sankai said some European nations have already expressed interest and HAL may soon be on the market there, but U.S. sales are still undecided.

Similar robotic suits that increase mobility are being worked on at the University of California, Berkeley, and by other researchers around the world.


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