Robotics to aid walking

Japanese government initiative

Cyberdyne makes first steps into a new robotics boom

By Robin Harding in Tokyo

Published: August 9 2009,dwp_uuid=1f7e9cc0-80db-11de-92e7-00144feabdc0.html?nclick_check=1

(note: to see a photo of the robotic limbs, click on the above link)

An hour’s drive east of Tokyo, in a cavernous new building in Tsukuba Science City, a company called Cyberdyne is working on a robot called Hal. Rest easy. Cyberdyne Systems may have been the fictional corporation responsible for the Terminator, a cyborg assassin in the eponymus film, and HAL-9000 the computer from 2001: A Space Odyssey, but the goal of Yoshiyuki Sankai, the company’s science-fiction-loving founder, is to make robots that help people rather than exterminate them.

In its work on “assistance robots”, Cyberdyne is at the forefront of what Japan’s government hopes will be a vast new industry and a way to address health and economic issues raised by the dramatic ageing of Japan’s population.

Rather than accept economic decline or allow large-scale immigration to supplement the decreasing population, Japan imagines an army of robot workers. The strategy is spelt out in a science and technology white paper published by the government this year.

“By 2025, more than 30 per cent of Japan’s population is expected to be over 65 . . . At the same time, the number of children will continue to fall, leading to shortages in labour to care for elderly and disabled people, and an increased burden on each care worker,” the white paper says.

It concludes: “In this environment, robots that support people’s independence and cars that are easy to use . . . will be essential.”

This potential has led many of Japan’s largest companies to invest in robotics.

Toyota and Honda have well-funded programs to build humanoid assistance robots. Trading company Sumitomo and Fuji Heavy Industries, which makes cars under the Subaru brand, are trying to sell cleaning robots. And Panasonic is launching a robotic drug dispensary in Japan this year and sees robotics as an attractive future market.

“The development of robots as a business is going to make considerable progress,” said Fumio Ohtsubo, president of Panasonic, in a recent interview with “The characteristic precision and attention to detail of Japanese people and companies will be well suited to developing safe robots.”

Cyberdyne differs in that it is building not a free-standing robot but an exoskeleton, which attaches to and amplifies the human body.

Hal – which at Cyberdyne stands for hybrid assisted limb – is a series of white plastic plates, with a motor at each joint such as the hip and elbow, which strap on to the outside of the arms and legs to provide additional power. “Basically, you can pick up something weighing 40kg like this,” says Mitsuhiro Sakamoto, Cyberdyne’s chief operating officer, taking his pen from the desk.

That is only the physical part of the HAL, however. “Our core technology is to detect bioelectric signals and then co-ordinate that with the movement of the suit,” Mr Sakamoto says. Through sensors attached to the skin, Hal detects and interprets electrical signals from the brain telling the arm or leg to move, and activates the exoskeleton simultaneously.

Cyberdyne is aiming for three main areas of application, Mr Sakamoto says. First, in rehabilitation, where a Hal suit or limb can help someone who is recovering after an accident to walk. Second, in helping those who cannot walk to do so, including the possibility of completely artificial limbs that detect weak electrical signals from elsewhere in the body. The third application is in support for heavy work, such as moving patients between beds in a nursing home. Mr Sakamoto showed video of elderly patients using Hal to walk – somewhat jerkily – and the FT was able to move a robot forearm by means of a sensor attached to the skin.

Hal went into commercial use last month, although the technology is still far from perfect. The average price is Y170,000 ($1,750) a month for a five-year rental. A single limb costs Y150,000, while a full “passenger suit” is Y220,000. Hal is being used in three hospitals in Japan, Mr Sakamoto says, and Cyberdyne is working with a partner in Denmark to bring the product to Europe. If the company turns a profit next year, as Mr Sakamoto hopes, that will have been made possible by the extensive research and development grants it receives from the Japanese government.

Four rounds of venture capital have raised Y4bn to fund commercial development. Daiwa House has been the biggest external investor.

Prof Sankai retains 90 per cent voting control, however, because of his determination to see that Hal is never used in its obvious military applications. If Hal fulfils its promise, Japan will be a nation of pensioners in powered suits hurling boulders like snowballs. Let us hope they never hear the words of Hal in 2001, when they go to open the front door: “I’m sorry, Dave, I’m afraid I can’t do that.”

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2009.