Japanese Robots: Cyberdyne's Taking HAL to Europe!
For nearly a decade, various iterations of Cyberdyne’s Inc.’s HAL suit have been paraded around as the next big thing in exoskeletal human force amplification and/or rehabilitation. Sure, hundreds have been deployed. In Japan. Only. But now, HAL’s going to Europe!
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Cyberdyne, Inc.’s Hybrid Assistive Limb (HAL) Suit Going Euro Style
First, “Das Exoskelett-Roboter-Anzug?” That’s funny, “Exoskeletal Robotic Suit” really seems like it should have about 73 syllables in German, not be almost exactly the same words. Huhh. Well that’s disappointing. But the news isn’t!
Tsukuba City-based Cyberdyne, Inc.’s HAL suit (pictured above and videoed below) has reached a number of milestones this year, and with news last week that the device received third-party approval from Germany-based certification agency TÜV Rheinland, it's time for the cybernetic prosthetic to go international. The milestones reached, the buildup to this first overseas deployment, include:
December 2012: HAL suit receives ISO certification (International Organization for Standardization), an important step toward bringing a major product to the international market.
February 2013: HAL suit receives a global safety certification from the Japan Quality Assurance Organization, thereby paving the way for it’s legal and domestically certified export.
July 2013: The ISO, recognizing Japan’s vanguard role in developing assistive robotics for both the elderly and disabled, announces that it will adopt Japanese standards as guidelines for assistive robotics certification worldwide (our coverage).
August 2013: Well, the news you’re reading now! With the European-based market safety certification, courtesy of TÜV Rheinland, HAL is ready to get a passport and hop on a jet plane. The suit is now certified and will be, according to the certifier, "offered as a medical device for the European market, which accounts for about 34% of the global medical device market." Trials in german hospitals are scheduled to begin soon.
Okay, but Let’s Refresh: What’s a HAL Suit, and Where Does it Come From?
The HAL suit is often referred to as a robot itself, but really it’s a wearable, or exoskeletal robotic device; a stand-alone robot, it is not. That it’s not actually a robot in and of itself, however, in no way detracts from the awesomeness:
Requisite Explanation A: The HAL suit is a state of the art force-feedback-based, robotic human strength amplifier that interprets subcutaneous nerve signals and translates them into corresponding, biomechanically congruent movement; with a mass-neutral presence on the human body, the HAL suit provides its user both an augmented support frame, and amplified force-exertion capability.
Requisite Explanation B: HAL senses what you’re doing with your body, and makes you stronger. Oh, and it feels like it doesn’t weigh anything.
The locale, “Tsukuba,” should ring familiar to readers of AkihabaraNews’ weekly Japanese Robots feature. Toyota’s robot that’s not a robot, the “Winglet,” for example, covered here a few weeks back, is being tested and evaluated in the same planned tech community north of Tokyo where so very many J-robot dreams come to life.
Lastly, it’s widely known that Tsukuba University Professor Yoshiyuki Sankai’s childhood dreams of a robotic suit are what led to the product his company now manufactures. Conceived in the late 1980s when Professor Sankai was wrapping up his PhD at Tsukuba University, and first made public in 2004, the HAL suits, in their various forms, have been his passion ever since.
Oh, and one more thing: we also have to note that the “Cyberdyne” and “HAL” monikers were chosen many years after they entered the global pop-cultural milieu. Cyberdyne, the fictional company that spawns forth murderous AI in the Terminator universe, and HAL, the murderous AI spaceship brain from the 2001: A Space Odyssey movie, have no relation to the subject of this article. And the way irony works in the English language has no relation to the way it kinda, well, kinda doesn’t exist in Japanese. That's just, you know, a cultural note. Value-added. We aim to serve!
HAL’s in the Lead - It Needs to Be, and a Lot of Others are Chasing
Professor Sankai’s motivations are clear: not only does he want to build a robot suit because robot suits are awesome, he’s also acutely aware of Japan’s Aging Society Problem and the potential role for products like HAL to support not only his elders’ mobility, but also his country’s economy. He knows. The Japanese government knows. It's on.
Twenty, thirty years ago, Japan made the best consumer electronics - like no one else - they dominated a global market, and it was an essential component of an already booming economy. Twenty years from now, the same could be true for assistive robotics: Japan is the ideal testbed for this new economic paradigm because, in the case of J-demographics, the combo pack of 1. a relatively large block of aging citizens living longer amidst a dwindling labor force will eventually mature, so to speak, into 2. a relatively sudden, virtually inevitable population decline; this pattern appears emblematic of all highly developed nations, and it happens to be maturing here first.
And again, that's not just the armchair pop-robotics analysis, the International Organization for Standardization also recognizes that Japan's leading the pack in assistive robotics development and practical implementation - assistive robotics such as the HAL suit.
To be sure, Cyberdyne’s not alone - there are lots and lots of assistive exoskeleton projects out there, but the big difference with Cyberdyne is that, unlike most of the competition, they’re not just R&Ding all day with a handful of models in the lab - they’ve already deployed hundreds. For now anyway, Cyberdyne is leading the pack - but they'll have to keep an edge.
The competition knows what Cyberdyne knows, they see the potential, and they want to compete - and that is so very necessary to drive innovation (HAL’s disaster response model’s got some significant competition from Panasonic subsidiary ActiveLink and their Power Loader Light). And there are other, very large players: Honda’s hard at work developing assistive robotics, Toyota's in the mix, and a number of products from the U.S. and Western Europe are also rapidly gaining ground.
Cyberdyne's got the juice for now, but they best not rest on their success. They have every opportunity to lead their growing market, but if they don't stay on their cybernetic toes ha, ha, ha, they could easily get Samsung-ed, so to speak.
So, to Professor Sankai and his team, good luck in Europe! And professor, we’ll be watching you and your competitors - closely - so you focus on protecting that lead, and AkihabaraNews' robotics coverage will focus on reporting how well that's going for you.
HAL Videos Addendum:
Here’s a look at the device in action from the always always-enjoyable-and-weird-to-Western-eyes Tomo News. It’s in Japanese, but Tomo News’ specialty is visual instruction through animation - you’ll get the point:
A much better shot of the suit in walking action from AFP BBNews:
And finally, this is the radiation-shielded model Cyberdyne put on display as an answer to assisting workers at Fukushima.
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