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University of Tsukuba’s Center for Cybernics Research (Sankai Laboratory): CYBERDYNE Inc.: Robot Suit HAL

Outline

The Hybrid Assistive Limb, or HAL, is a wearable robot that assists people to complete actions such as standing up, sitting down, walking, lifting heavy items, and walking up and down stairs. With the assistance of HAL, a person who is capable of pushing 100 kg on a leg press can improve his or her maximum weight to 180 kg, or lift an object weighing 40 kg as if it were just a handful of kilograms. In one instance, a man who initially required the support of five others to walk, recovered enough strength when wearing HAL, through continued HAL-assisted rehabilitation, to take steps on his own. In another instance, a patient who was prepared to spend the rest of his life in a wheelchair, regained his ability to walk smoothly after four months of rehabilitation with a HAL modified for medical use, and eventually became able to walk for over 1 km. HAL itself weighs 24 kg, but it is designed to support its own weight so that there is no burden on the wearer.

The robot suit was developed at the University of Tsukuba’s Center for Cybernics Research. Professor Yoshiyuki Sankai, the project’s principal investigator, started basic research in 1992 and completed the first prototype in 1997. Five years later, in 2002, the completion of HAL-3 was announced, a step that put the practical application of HAL firmly in sight. In 2012, the prototype HAL-5 and a modified version for assistive and rehabilitative purposes based on HAL-5 were showcased in demonstrations and introduced for actual use.

Currently in 2014, CYBERDYNE, the company for which Sankai serves as the CEO, is furthering the development of HAL and promoting its practical use. HAL is available for rental or lease, and in 2012, just two years after starting the business through rental and lease agencies, an astounding 200 units had been put to work in 70 facilities. Since then, CYBERDYNE has expanded the variety of models of HAL available, such as those for physical training and fitness. The company continues to enthusiastically introduce successor models and new models as they envision HAL’s wide use in industry for heavy lifting in factories, rescue support in disaster sites, and even in the entertainment industry.

The most notable achievement for HAL in recent years has been the international expansion of its business in the medical field. In 2012, CYBERDYNE began clinical trials of HAL in Europe to treat leg disabilities. The clinical trials were conducted in Danderyds Hospital of Karolinska University in Sweden, the Bergmannsheil, Germany’s largest occupational accident insurance hospital, and the Catholic University of Louvain in Louvain-la-Neuve, Belgium. In August of the same year, HAL received the CE marking from Europe’s largest certification body, allowing its distribution and sale in the European Union. This is the first time in the world that a wearable robot has been applied for medical use. If HAL’s commercialization can be achieved in Japan as well, it should become a highly attractive product for Japan’s medical instrument industry. Therefore, it is highly desirable for Japan to keep step with Europe and the United States to establish a system whereby a product can be swiftly certified and distributed after development.

In August 2013, CYBERDYNE partnered with the Statutory Accident Insurance Body for the Raw Material and Chemical Industries (BG RCI) in Germany to establish Cyberdyne Care Robotics GmbH, which administers therapy for functional improvement on patients with neuromuscular diseases, including those with spinal cord injuries and stroke patients. The medical expenses of the therapy are covered by occupational accident insurance policies. Additionally, Cyberdyne Care Robotics has partnered with multiple Professional Associations’ Hospitals (BG Hospitals) and private hospitals in Germany, as well as with research institutes in Austria and Switzerland, with the goal of expanding its business in the medical field. The newly formed company is expected to develop into an international center for physical therapy using HAL.


How HAL Works: Mechanisms to Assist Human Movement


HAL’s core technology allows it to detect and analyze bio-electrical signals on the surface of the wearer’s skin.

Nerve signals travelling from the brain to muscles via motor neurons are the driving force for muscular motion in humans. HAL can detect these electrical signals and determine which skeletal muscles they intend to move. HAL then puts its corresponding joints into action to assist muscular motion, in coordination with the wearer; this is HAL’s basic mechanism.

In addition to the mechanism, called the ‘Cybernic voluntary control system,’ that enables HAL to detect and move in response to signals from the wearer, HAL is also equipped with another system, called the ‘Cybernic autonomous control system,’ whereby HAL attempts to smooth out the wearer’s motions autonomously. These two systems work hand in hand, allowing HAL to assist human movement smoothly. Herein lies the reason for HAL’s name; it is a limb of two control systems fused into one; a ‘Hybrid Assistive Limb.’ 


Cybernics – The Field of Science Making HAL Possible


At first glance, HAL may seem like little more than a collection of engineering technologies. Its development, however, including the use of bio-electric signals, is the result of bringing together experts from both the humanities and the sciences to pioneer a brand new approach combining ideas from human, mechanical, and information systems. This new interdisciplinary field of study, proposed by Professor Sankai, was named Cybernics, a word derived from its component fields of cybernetics, mechatronics, and informatics.

The creation of this new academic field, dedicated to the development of technologies compatible with human movement, required the vision to incorporate multiple and diverse disciplines and technologies: electrical, electronic, and mechanical engineering; neuroscience, physiology, biology, chemistry, and medicine; social sciences, such as behavioral psychology and law (with a focus on the introduction of Cybernics technology into society); and fields related to safety. 

The field of Cybernics, as proposed by Professor Sankai, merges knowledge from these various fields, enabling the collection and analysis of a vast amount of data on human motion from various different angles. This collective approach resulted in the birth of HAL and its control systems.

The goals of Cybernics are to understand humans, and to generate new research and technologies that are beneficial to humans. It will certainly be worth keeping a close eye on how ongoing research and development on the HAL project will further contribute to human society.

March 26, 2014  (revised)
July 13, 2012

About the author
Hiromi Jitsukata is a reporter for Japanest NIPPON