Although the acronym IREX stands for International Robot Exhibition, not everything on display in Tokyo this week is a robot in the traditional sense. Take the HAL-5 bionic suit for example. Developed by Yoshiyuki Sankai of the University of Tsukuba in Japan over a period of more than ten years, the HAL-5, or hybrid assistive limb, was developed to help the elderly and people with physical disabilities walk and lift heavy objects. It was first unveiled at the World Expo in Aichi, Japan earlier this year and should be available for purchase before the end of the year at an estimated cost of $15,000 – $20,000.
The Hal-5 is controlled by two separate systems. The first system consists of a set of bioelectric sensors that are attached directly to the skin on the legs and arms in order to monitor signals traveling between the muscles and the brain. By measuring the electric current on the skin surface that occurs when a nerve fires in anticipation of walking, standing, or picking something up, the attached computer knows when and how to drive the motors of the exoskeleton. Amazingly the exoskeleton reacts almost as quickly as the human brain itself does.
The second system doesn’t react directly to the biofeedback, but rather coordinates the motor commands generated by the first system. It recognizes user movements and optimizes the exoskeleton’s motor functions to perform the task at hand. For example, information about how a user walks is stored into the system during its initial training. From then on it automatically recognizes when a person is walking and plays back the recorded movement pattern to assist. The underlying power of the suit is that the stored patterns can be adjusted to compensate for a user’s weakness or disability, like a limp or a weak or injured limb.
In addition to providing physical assistance, the device will also be made available to aid in medical rehabilitation for people with brain or spinal injuries.