Times Online, October 11, 2008
A robotic suit that reads brain signals and helps people
with mobility problems became available this week to rent in
Japan for ¥220,000 ($2,100 U.S.) a month — an invention that may
have far-reaching benefits 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.
The 10-kg battery-operated computer system is belted to the
waist. It 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.
Cyberdyne, a new company in Tsukuba, Ibaraki Prefecture, will
mass-produce HAL. Two people demonstrated the suits at the
company's headquarters Tuesday.
A demonstration video also showed a partially paralyzed person
getting up from a chair and walking slowly wearing the HAL suit.
"We are ready to present this to the world," said Yoshiyuki
Sankai, a University of Tsukuba professor who designed HAL.
Sankai, who has worked on robotic suits since 1992 and is also
Cyberdyne's chief executive, said a full device that covers the
entire body is also being designed, though it is unclear when it
will be available commercially.
HAL comes in three sizes — small, medium and large — and also
has a one-leg version for a ¥150,000 monthly rental fee.
Noel Sharkey is a robotics expert not affiliated with the
technology. The professor at the University of Sheffield in
England said HAL will have wide-ranging benefits for the elderly
and 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 in an e-mail.
Cyberdyne said its policy is not to reveal how much it costs to
manufacture the device. It is unclear when HAL will go on sale
to the public or what the price tag will be.
Robotics technology is common in manufacturing sectors, but
product liability concerns restrict its widespread use in
everyday life. Sankai said the HAL technology is devoted to
social welfare purposes only, adding he has refused requests
from military officials to share it.
Some European nations have already expressed interest, and HAL
may soon be on the market there, but U.S. sales are still
undecided, Sankai said.
Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, and
elsewhere around the world are working on similar robotic suits
that increase mobility.
Daiwa House Industry Co. will lease HAL suits to Japanese care
facilities for the elderly and others for those with
disabilities. It plans to rent 500 units over the next year.
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