The HAL exoskeleton which we talked about last year will soon be available for renting in Japan. If you don’t remember, Seiji Uchida, a quadriplegic, came 500 yards from the the top of Switzerland’s highest mountains with the help of his friend Takeshi Matsumoto who put on Hybrid Assistive Limb (HAL) suit and then carried Seiji on his shoulders to the top of the mountain.
Now, Tsukuba ‘s Cyberdyne will start mass producing this mini-exoskeleton making it available later this week to those who need it for $2200 a month. I say that this is a mini-exoskeleton because (according to Yahoo! News) it only embraces a person’s lower body providing assistance during walking but lucks an upper body component; the complete HAL suit includes and upper and lower body component and if the first version finds success in the marketplace then it won’t be long before the complete suit becomes available to those who need it. For the time being, those using the HAL exoskeleton will not be able to lift heavy weights in a similar fashion to Sarcos‘ prototype demonstrated last year (see a video of Sarcos’ exoskeleton in action.)
However, what makes HAL truly amazing is the way that the suit is controlled.
When a person attempts to move, nerve signals are sent from the brain to the muscles via motoneuron, moving the musculoskeletal system as a consequence. At this moment, very weak biosignals can be detected on the surface of the skin. HAL catches these signals through a sensor attached on the skin of the wearer. Based on the signals obtained, the power unit is controlled to move the joint unitedly with the wearer’s muscle movement, enabling to support the wearer’s daily activities. This is what we call a ‘voluntary control system’ that provides movement interpreting the wearer’s intention from the biosignals in advance of the actual movement.
I am tempted to make an Iron Man joke here but this exoskeleton (and the Sarcos one and all the other ones in development) is going to make life so much better for those with disabilities and the elderly. This is academic research and engineering at their best.