Technology Review – Domo Arigato, Mr. Roboto

Professor Sankai, of the University of Tsukuba in Japan, has developed the Hybrid Assitive Limb (HAL). He joined forces with venture firm Cyberdyne Inc. to create an upper and lower body powered exoskeleton. Let’s take a closer look…

HAL

Overview:
Intended Use: Rehabilitation and physical training support, ADL support, heavy labour support in factories, rescue support at disaster sites, AND…in the entertainment field (I’ll leave that to your imagination)
Purpose: to expand and improve physical capability
Release date: Currently available in Japan only for rental to Rehabilitation facilities. They have stated plans to expand overseas but with no predicted release dates.
Cost: $2200/month rental for lower extremity portion of the suit, or $1500/month for the single leg version. Rentals are only made to Rehabilitation facilities and not yet to individuals. No figures available for the full body, single joint, or upper body units as these products are still under development and are not yet on the market.

My Take: The Japanese seem to have a good handle on making really cool, often useless things. HAL, fortunately, is not one of these useless devices. The unit not only has a sleek look, but it incorporates feedforward technology (as seen on the video) meaning there are sensors placed over certain muscle groups and when these sensors receive a signal from the brain, the muscle is triggered to contract via the electrode.

This technology – known as EMG-initiated electrical muscle stimulation – is an excellent addition to any type of therapy program, as research has shown it to be an effective technique in improving motor function post stroke1. HAL’s system design (the “Hybrid” part of HAL) uses both robotic and voluntary control. Basically, whatever the user cannot initiate, the robot will initiate.

The lower extremity device does not appear awkward to control for the user, and set-up time is less than 5 minutes. I was disappointed that the battery only allows 2 hours and 40 minutes of continuous use, but that may actually last an entire day for an individual walking a less than average amount. For those of you looking to go to work with the robotic legs and wear them all day, you’ll have to take regular breaks to charge your battery, OR invest in the extra battery pack.

Soon to hit the market will be the full body suit (lower and upper body units together) which will not only support the user’s walking and lower extremity function, but will allow you to lift ridiculous amounts of weight with very little effort – helping ease the strain of patient transfers for nurses and support staff.

Overall, if this unit were available in North America, I would be very interested in using it in a clinical setting for therapy. Its combination of muscle stimulation and robotic assistance are very appealing for rehabilitation professionals…and who wouldn’t want to do therapy with Styx on a continuous loop?

1 – Bolton, D., Cauraugh, J., & Hausenblas, H. (2004). Electromyogram-triggered neuromuscular stimulation and stroke motor recovery of arm/hand functions: a meta-analysis Journal of the Neurological Sciences, 223 (2), 121-127

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