One popular series at DailyTech took an exclusive look at building a real-life Iron Man and the technologies needed to deliver both exoskeleton enhanced strength, speed, and flight. One conclusion of that series is that while impressive, modern exoskeleton technologies will need to advance greatly, before a superhero-like suit can be created.
Now new advances from Japan bring us a bit closer to that goal. Cyberdyne, a company just outside of Tokyo, has developed and is marketing a new exoskeleton which brings a lot to the table. The new device can help elderly and the disabled walk again. Even partially paralyzed people can walk with the new device. The suit's design was led by Tsukuba University engineering professor Yoshiyuki Sankai.
Japan, famous for its science fiction stories in which cybernetics technology has become so ubiquitous that man and machine become one, is perhaps an unsurprising home for such advances in exoskeleton research. The new device, the “hybrid assistive limb,” HAL for short, attaches to the user's body at their thigh, waist, and calf. Based on how much (if any) movement the person can provide to their leg, the robotic legs will fill in the remaining force necessary to move the legs in a normal, albeit a bit slow, walking motion.
The device is remarkably light, considering its power, weighing in with battery at only 22 pounds. The battery carries a 5 hour charge. The exoskeleton's efficiency is enhanced by the fact that its architecture is self-supporting, so extra power does not need to be devoted to supporting itself, merely to turning the legs.
A person with normal strength would also get a boost from the suit. Someone who could leg-press 250 pounds would now be able to life 450 pounds with the help of the suit. The suit is making a splash thanks to a paralyzed Japanese quadriplegic, Seiji Uchida, who plans on climbing a Swiss peak by riding piggyback on an experienced climber that is wearing the suit to help him support the extra weight.
For now, only the Japanese get to enjoy this new device -- Cyberdyne has no plans currently announced to bring it to America. In Japan you can rent one leg for $1,500 or two legs for $2,200.00 a month -- a bit pricey, certainly. Similar, less efficient devices are near to reaching the market in America.
Mech junkies will also be pleased to note that Cyberdyne has also designed a full body suit, the HAL-5 Type B, which includes arm support, allowing users to lift heavy objects. The suit is currently unreleased and no pricing has been announced yet.
The full body suit is expected to weigh around 60 pounds, mostly self-supported (36 pound lower body, 34 pound upper body). It can currently operate for just under 3 hours on a single charge. Cyberdyne is suggesting it be used for "heavy labour support at factories, and rescue support at disaster sites, as well as in the entertainment field" as well as medical purposes.
Some have pondered at the curious naming of both the company and the robotic names. In perhaps a humorous homage, the company shares the name with the sinister company in the Terminator movie franchise, which is responsible for unleashing Terminator robots on the world. The device, HAL, also seems to pay homage to the malefic spaceship supercomputer featured in the movie 2001, A Space Odyssey.