TOKYO (AFP) – Japanese companies are preparing for the commercial launch of a “robot suit” that helps aged or physically disabled people walk, get up the stairs or seat themselves to relax without a chair.
Trading house Mitsui and Co. and some 30 other Tokyo firms plan to set up a joint-venture in April or May next year to market the powered suit developed by Yoshiyuki Sankai, professor and engineer at Tsukuba University, officials said Thursday.
“This is neither a robot in machine factories nor a one for amusement like a pet robot. This is a brand-new proposal projecting a future image of relations between people and robots,” Sankai said.
“The suit practically supports people’s life, focusing on the strong point of robots,” Sankai said.
The powered suit, code-named HAL-3 (Hybrid Assistive Leg), consists of a computer and batteries in the backpack as well as four actuators attached around the knees and hip joints.
The motor-powered devices guide movement of the legs as the computer calculates the user’s next motion by detecting faint electric signals from the muscle, the professor said.
With the equipment, the user can walk at a speed of four kilometres (2.5 miles) per hour with little physical exertion and avoid the jerky stop-go moves of ordinary robots.
As a first step, the new venture plans to lease or sell 10 prototypes next year, targetting hospitals and nursing-care facilities at home and abroad, Sankai said.
A mid-term goal for the project is to sell some 100 suits a year at a price of one million yen (8,440 dollars).
Sankai also noted that Japan’s greying society was a key consideration behind the development of the suit.
“As the country is heading rapidly towards an ageing society, the demand for such a robotic support system will certainly grow,” the professor said.
“Not only the elderly but also disabled people will be able to live comfortably, leaving heavy physical tasks to the suit,” he said.
The need for Japan to take measures to deal with its ageing society is increasingly urgent. The proportion of people aged 65 or older in Japan came to a record high of 18.82 percent, according to the latest government report on population released on Wednesday.
Improvements to the suit are already being worked on.
The weight of the system will be soon reduced from the current 17 kilogrammes (37 pounds) to some 10 kilogrammes, while the projecting part of the actuators will be halved to five centimetres (one and three quarter inches).
“We have also started developing a version for arms,” Sankai said. “Eventually, we aim to make a suit that is thin enough to be worn like underwear and will allow users to run and move their arms freely.”
Japan was in the vanguard of robotic technology, developing industry robots in the post-war period of rapid economic expansion, and has recently enjoyed a boom in leisure-oriented robots and talking, walking humanoid robots, developed by major Japanese firms such as Sony and Honda Motor.