April 16, 2009 Anyone who has seen Aliens will remember the exoskeleton forklift that Ripley wears to fight the alien queen at the end of the movie. Well, Japanese company Cyberdyne has unveiled a robotic suit that works on a similar idea of a robotic suit capable of augmenting human motion and strength. The Robot Suit Hybrid Assistive Limb (HAL for short) is a wearable robot that uses a “voluntary control system” first to interpret the wearers' planned movement and then assist them in it.

The suit's "voluntary control system" works by capturing bio-electrical signals detected on the surface of the skin, before the muscles actually move. The system analyzes these signals to determine how much power the wearer intends to generate and calculates how much power assist must be generated by which power units. The power units then generate the necessary torque and the limbs move. All this takes place a split second before the muscles start moving, allowing the relevant robotic joints to move in unison with the wearer’s muscles.

The suit also uses a "robotic autonomous control system" that provides human-like movement based on movements stored in a database. The movements, which are automatically updated based on information that sensors collect from the body, allow HAL to autonomously coordinate each motion. This means HAL can be used even if no bio-electrical signals are detected, due to problems, say, in the central nervous system or the muscles.

The battery, worn on the back, provides about two hours and 40 minutes of continuous running time, although a newer battery promises more like five hours of use, assisting in daily activities such as standing up from a chair, walking, climbing up and down stairs or lifting heavy objects. At 1.6m tall, the suit weighs 23kg, but the wearer is not expected to carry the burden since the exoskeleton supports its own weight.

With the ability to multiply the wearer’s strength by a factor of between two and 10, depending on the type of robnotic suit being worn, Cyberdyne expects HAL to be used in a range of ways and areas, such as rehabilitation and physical training support, helping disabled people, heavy lifting, and assisting in rescue at disaster sites. The company also sees potential in the entertainment industry – perhaps a cage match fight to the death between HAL and the alien queen, if anyone's game.

The Robot Suit HAL is only available to Japanese residents, although an office has been set up to introduce it to the European Union.

Darren Quick