– Derek M. Hansen –
Every now and then you see something that is just ‘science-fiction’ cool. Something that you may have seen in the movies and, eventually, becomes a reality. If you’ve seen “Iron Man” starring Robert Downey Jr. this year, you couldn’t help but leave the movie theater wondering when a super-suit would be available in the near future to enhance your strength and power.
On Friday, November 7, 2008, Honda Motors announced it will begin real-world testing of its second experimental walking assist device designed to reduce the strain on a user’s leg muscles and joints such as hips, knees and ankles. The mechanics device will support a portion of the user’s body weight for activities such as crouching, walking or climbing stairs and is meant to help both those physically weakened with age or injury as well as workers who would need to reduce the stress on their bodies from heavy work or postural conditions that are unsafe.
The device, including its lithium ion battery and shoes, weighs 14.3lbs, and uses two electric motors to assist users’ leg movement for up to two hours before a re-charge is required.
Honda began research on a walking assist device in 1999 with the goal to provide more people with the joy of mobility. The first walking assist device, announced in April 2008, has a stride management system and was designed for people with weakened leg muscles, due to reasons such as aging. The research and development of Honda’s advanced humanoid robot, ASIMO, including the study of human walking, provided Honda with the knowledge necessary to develop the walking assist device. This research has been conducted by the Fundamental Technology Research Center of Honda R&D Co., Ltd. in Wako, Saitama. To evaluate the effectiveness of the experimental model of the walking assist device with bodyweight support system, Honda will test the walking assist device at its Saitama Factory (in Sayama, Saitama) starting this month.
Now that we are actually on the cusp of this type of technology, it will be interesting to see what useful applications arise. As reported, use with mobility-challenged populations and factory workers will be the first applications. The elderly and persons recovering from stroke could benefit from this device. I could also see this type of robotic technology being used in rehabilitation for lower limb injuries. This apparatus, although pricey, could replace crutches. In the first week following ACL surgery, patients could strap on this device and avoid significant weight bearing, while introducing much needed flexion and extension movement in the knee joint, much like a Continuous Passive Motion (CPM) device. It would ensure stability while incorporating movement and accessibility. I could foresee it being used for assisted movements as part of a strengthening and muscle re-education progression, enabling squatting, lunging, walking and, eventually, running.
I could even see exoskeleton robotic technology being integrated into a whole new classification of sport. I would love to see the robotic, cyborg 100 meter sprint performed in under 6 seconds. And then there are the military and policing applications for these types of robotics, much similar to the “Iron Man” concept.
I will be watching closely to see how this technology evolves and if more and more investment is directed at these types of projects.
To find out more on the Honda Walking Assist project, visit this link.