Cybernics research aims to enhance health and vitality through robot suits
At Cybernics International Forum 2011, a robot suit called HAL was exhibited and demonstrated.
Developed by Professor Sankai at Tsukuba University, HAL is a robot suit that strengthens and augments human capabilities. HAL detects weak bioelectric signals, passing from the brain to the musculoskeletal system, on the surface of the skin. Then it instantly operates motors, to move its joints in coordination with the wearer's muscles. A commercial version of HAL has already been provided for welfare use.
"In America, a lot of high-tech research originates from the defense and aerospace industries. But in Japan, we'd like to make high-tech advances in the health and welfare field, which is very difficult because technology has to be applied to individuals. And in this way, we think technology from industry could be used to enhance everyday life. We feel this might be one way for Japan to show the world some unique achievements."
This demo featured a lower-body suit for care applications, a compact, single-jointed version, and a full-body suit for augmentation in factory work.
"Factory workers are getting older as well, and in nursing care, people need to lift even heavier items than in factory work. In that sense, we'd like to use the same technology to support both care-giving and heavy duties in factories. There would also be entertainment applications. If suits like these could be made smaller, they could be used like toys, without producing much force. Such systems could be connected to interactive IT through game machines. I think they could also be used to record human techniques and skills, to pass those on to future generations as social assets."
These technologies belong to the new field of cybernics, in which Professor Sankai is a pioneer.
"The word cybernics comes from cybernetics, mechatronics, and informatics. But this field also requires neurology, behavioral science, robotics, IT, physiology, and psychology. It also involves law, so it even extends as far as the social sciences. We're going to develop this field by looking at all perspectives, from fundamental research to the real world."
The head-mounted brain interface developed in this research detects brain blood concentration per unit volume, and displays brain activity using colored lights. Until now, brain activity could only be viewed on a PC monitor, but this system enables it to be seen directly.
"To make this system really useful in society, rather than being just a research device, we've teamed up with professionals, including physicians and physiotherapists. In this way, we've started to tackle areas that were previously considered difficult. Next, we intend to utilize the special technologies created in these areas to develop sensors for health management. We'd also like to utilize technologies for observing human movement and behavior to monitor people's safety in the home. So at this stage, we're creating technologies that encompass everything from neurology to the human body and living spaces."