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HAL exoskeletons help people with disabilities walk once more

Niigata National Hospital (NNH) in Kashiwazaki, Niigata Prefecture, along with 9 other hospitals in Osaka and Tokyo will be conducting clinical trials on a robotic exoskeleton that may some day give new "legs" to the handicapped.  

In an age when amputees compete in the Olympics, technology is still catching up when it comes to the dream of cybernetics.  But Cyberdyne Inc. -- a startup looking to productize the work of Yoshiyuki Sankai at the University of Tsukuba -- has dreams of high-tech exoskeletons that would make even Tony Stark proud.

The Iron Man-like leggings were demoed to us at the 2011 Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, Nevada and seemed impressive.  But it's been a slow journey navigating the walking assistance device, dubbed "Robotic Suit HAL", to the medical market.

Trials will finally begin at the selected institutions in March.  Thirty adult patients will participate in the test.  Medical conditions range from muscle weakness to partial paralysis.

CEATEC HAL
A speaker shows off the HAL suit at CES 2011. [Image Source: Jason Mick/DailyTech]

The HAL suit's latest iteration actually grabs signals from the patient's brain via electrodes and uses it to direct the legs to move.  Movement is designed in a gentle and natural walking motion, such as to protect the patient's own tendons and ligaments.

Cyberdyne looks to follow up with more clinical trials in Europe later this year.  Early tests have already been ongoing at NNH.

HAL test
At test of the HAL suit at Niigata National Hospital.

If the trials go well, the exoskeleton could see additional commercial interest outside of the field of medicine.  According to Cyberdyne representatives at CES, several military institutions have expressed an interest acquiring versions of the exoskeleton, which could assist soldiers in marching while carrying heavy loads.'

Exoskeletons and robotics are a hot research fields in Japan.  Honda Motor Comp., Ltd. (TYO:7267) is working on a rival robotic walking assistance device.  And another lab is working on a crime-fighting "Robocop".

Among the other exoskeletons competing with HAL are Vanderbilt University's Center for Intelligent Mechatronics/Parker Hannifin Corp.'s (PHwearable exoskeleton, Israeli Argo Medical Technologies Ltd.'s ReWalk Rehabilitation Suit, and Berkeley, Calif.-based Ekso BionicsEkso Exosuit.

Source: The Asahi Shimbun





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