New generation of 'muscle suits' make light work of heavy lifting
New generation of robotic aids aimed to help the elderly and care workers
With a bend of the knees and a hiss of compressed air being pumped into his "muscles", Hiroshi Kobayashi lifts two 10kg sacks of rice with as much ease as if they were regular-size bags of sugar.
Kobayashi is cheating, but with honourable intentions. He is the brains behind a new generation of "muscle suits" specially designed for Japan's rising number of elderly citizens and their care workers.
"The idea is to help people live independently," said Kobayashi, a professor at Tokyo University of Science who has been perfecting the prototype device for more than a decade.
"The joints are moved by artificial muscles, so the wearer is able to move about unencumbered," he said.
Kobayashi's 5kg muscle suit, which goes on sale next month, is expected to be adopted first by manual and agricultural workers as well as employees at day-care and retirement homes.
As the suits become more affordable, Kobayashi and his collaborators at manufacturer Kikuchi Seisakusho predict they will be used by disabled and elderly people with mobility problems, possibly by the end of this decade.
The muscle suit has earned good reviews where it has been tested - not least from care workers who had been forced to take time off with back problems brought on by, among other tasks, lifting residents into and out of baths.
"In the past when workers lifted people, they had to really exert themselves, which also had the effect of causing anxiety among the elderly people they were caring for," Kobayashi said. "The muscle suit makes lifting so much easier, and the people being cared for don't have to worry about being dropped."
Kikuchi Seisakusho's factory in Fukushima prefecture is expected to manufacture up to 200 muscle suits a month, starting this summer. Initially, they would be rented out for about 25,000 yen (HK$1,900) a month, with a smaller number being sold for 300,000 yen to 800,000 yen, the company's president Isao Kikuchi said.
Tokyo University of Science and Kikuchi Seisakusho are not alone in developing affordable, exoskeletons. Cyberdyne, based near Tokyo, has had success with its Hybrid Assistive Limb [HAL] robotic suit, which it rents out to hospitals and care facilities.
The care robotics industry would be worth 35 billion yen by the end of the decade, according to a study by Yano Research Institute.