April 16, 2009 With increasing numbers of post-war baby boomers beginning to face old age, devices assisting people remain mobile as they grow older will become big business. Honda, which started out making motorcycles, has anticipated the needs of an aging population and invested heavily in mobility robotics research. The company is planning to demonstrate its prototype walking assist devices as part of a technical exhibition at the 2009 Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) World Congress, at Detroit's Cobo Center, from April 20 to 23. Prior to the Detroit event, Honda plans to put the devices through their paces for media in New York.
Honda began researching walking assist devices in 1999, aimed at assisting people with limited or reduced mobility. The company based its walking assist device on studies of the human walk. The same research was also instrumental in developing Honda's advanced humanoid robot, ASIMO (for more information, visit our ASIMO page and a 360-degree look at ASIMO). From this research, Honda built the Stride Management Assist and the Bodyweight Support Assist devices, which were principally designed to help the elderly and people with weakened leg muscles to walk. The devices are still being tested under real-life conditions to evaluate their effectiveness. The company has applied for more than 130 patents for the devices.
Stride Management Assist is a lightweight, wearable device suited to people with weakened leg muscles, but who can still manage to walk on their own. The device gathers information about the user's walking motions from hip angle sensors. With that, a CPU then calculates how much assistance is needed and when. This enables the wearer to lengthen their stride and regulate their walking pace, making it easier to move.
The compact design of the device was achieved using flat brushless motors and a control system developed by Honda. Also by keeping the design as simple as possible, with only a belt needed to be worn around the hip and thigh, the device is relatively light at 6lbs (2.8kg). It also allows the device to be fitted to a range of different body shapes.
The Stride Management Assist device comes in three sizes (small, medium and large) with the distance between the motors ranging from 312mm for the large size, 342mm for medium and 372mm for small.
Bodyweight Support Assist is also designed to help people with weakened leg muscles, but is better suited to assisting with more physically demanding activities. By supporting the body's weight, the device reduces the load on the leg muscles and joints while walking, going up and down stairs or standing in a semi-crouching position. This device is a simple structure consisting of a seat, frame, and shoes. You put the device on by simply slipping your feet into the shoes and lifting the seat into position.
Honda has developed a unique mechanism where the seat and frame follow the movement of the body and legs. According to Honda, the assisting force is directed toward the user's center of gravity, just as human legs do, which provides the vital assistance needed to move or position the body. A natural walking motion is achieved by sensors embedded in the shoes changing the amount of assistance to the right and left legs.
Honda was able to improve the effectiveness of the device by adjusting the assisting force to take into account the bending and stretching motion of the knees, which enabled users to walk up and down stairs or take up a semi-crouching position.
Honda produces a wide range of transport and equipment based around mobility. The development of the walking assist devices, based on research used to build its advanced humanoid robot ASIMO, is a logical progression. But we are also only at the very beginning, relatively speaking, of what is bound to be a long, mechanically assisted walk.
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