From the land of personal robotics (and the Rising Sun) comes news of the impending launch of a power-assisted exoskeleton to be known as HAL-3 (Hybrid Assisted Leg). Designed for the 'rehabilitation of person who have a functional disorder in their lower body, or power augmentation of the unimpaired', HAL is expected to sell for around one million Japanese yen (AUD$12,000) when it goes on sale.
The field of robotics promises much for the physically handicapped and Gizmo has previously run several stories of machines which will bring new freedoms; for example; The iBOT is a four-wheeled wheel-chair which can rise vertically to eye-level and balance on two wheels, use four wheels to cross rough terrain and can go up and down stairs.
The Power Assist Suit from Kanagawa Institute of Technology in Japan aids nurses in lifting immobile patients. Electronic sensors monitor the user's muscles and trigger the hydraulically operated suit to boost strength by more than 50%.
The Power Assist Suit was the first exoskeleton we'd seen since writing the story about development work being done by the American military to introduce such technology to soldiers in combat environments. The US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), is funding a US$50 million project known as "Exoskeletons for Human Performance Augmentation".
The scope of the program includes the development of actively controlled exoskeletons that not only increase strength and speed, but enable larger weapons to be carried, provide a higher level of protection from enemy fire or chemical attack, allow wearers to stay active longer and carry more food, ammunition and field supplies.
So the HAL-3 robot suit will be of interest to two large and wealthy groups of people - the aging population of the world and the American Military.
HAL will enable people who are frailto walk at 4kmh, climb stairs or seat themselves without a chair with almost no physical exertion. HAL also appears to have overcome most of the jerky movements associated with bi-pedal robots - check this video of the suit in motion. (careful - it's 1.94MB)
HAL-3 works by providing power assistance based on neuromuscular signals (myoelectricity), and comes with a back-pack containing a computer and batteries, and four actuators which sit beside the knee and hip joints.
The HAL-3 Power Assisted Robot Suit is being developed for commercialisation at present by a joint venture involving Tsukuba University where it was developed by a research team headed by Professor Yoshiyuki Sankai, INRI Inc. (Mitsui Co. Ltd.) and Ota City Industrial Promotion Organization.
HAL-3 is expected to become available around mid-year with plans to sell ten prototypes in 2004.