Tuesday, September 30, 2014

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Techno Tokyo: Robot Worn On Your Body Can Increase Your Strength

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In the latest installment of NY1’s two-week series looking at technology in Japan, Techno Tokyo, we meet the bionic man...sort of. Tech Beat Reporter Adam Balkin explains.

You're bound to say it at least once during a two-week series on Japanese technology. So go ahead - now's a good time: Domo arigato Mr. Roboto.

An exoskeleton that can be worn by a human is a new type of robot under development at Tsukuba University. It's called Hybrid Assistive Limb, HAL for short, and anyone who wears it has potential to lift up to 10-times the weight they normally could.

“It depends on his original power, because this robot suit is controlled by the assist ratio,” says Yoshiyuki Sankai of Tsukuba University. “Usually we set it at 50% or 60% or 70%. If he is a very weak person we set the assist ratio at 90%, so at that time you say 10 times.”

HAL works by figuring out what the wearer's muscle are doing. The suit then simply reacts.

“The command signals from the brain are transmitted to the muscles through the motor neurons, and we can detect such faint bio-electrical signals on the surface of the skin, and these signals are calibrated into the computer here, and after that this computer controls these power units so he can move or upgrade his power,” says Sankai.

And believe it or not, sometimes the suit interprets those electrical signals more quickly than the wearer's muscles. In other words, it moves before the human muscle does.

The next big test comes this summer, when a Japanese physical therapist will actually carry one of his patients, a polio patient, all the way to the top of a mountain in the Swiss Alps.

After that, the challenge will be helping people who've lost control of their limbs climb on their own.

“One of the patients who come to my laboratory lost his legs, so we are preparing, developing his artificial legs by using this technology,” says Sankai.

Developers expect when the suit becomes commercially available - they hope within the next few years - it'll likely cost somewhere around $20,000.

- Adam Balkin
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