Asimo byproduct could revolutionize seniors’ lives

by Jun Hongo

Staff Writer

A byproduct of Honda Motor Co.’s development of the Asimo humanoid robot may be about to come to the aid of Japan’s aging population.

“The Stride Management Assist device helps the elderly lengthen their stride when they walk and in doing so helps them to walk faster,” Kiyoshi Oikawa, from Honda’s Fundamental Technology Research Center, said last month while unveiling the SMA.

The device, which weighs 2.4 kg, is worn like a belt around the waist and comes with a minicomputer mounted on the back that analyzes a variety of factors, including the length of the user’s stride and the terrain. The data are transferred to a motor angle sensor located at the top of each thigh that rotates and assists a user’s stride.

While the SMA is designed to make walking easier for the elderly, extended use can also help someone recover a healthy stride. And that is a significant benefit as the number of elderly who require nursing care continues to surge.

Because of rising longevity rates and the country’s low fertility rate, which has hovered below 1.4 for more than a decade, one out of every four Japanese will be 75 or older by 2060, according to the latest statistics of the Cabinet Office.

Meanwhile, those aged 65 and above will surge to 39.9 percent of the population by 2060, compared with just 4.9 percent in 1950, the data showed.

“Our society is aging at a rate that no other country in the world has experienced,” the Cabinet report concluded.

“The important thing is for seniors to remain active and avoid needing nursing care,” said Hiroyuki Shimada, chief of a state-backed center that promotes health and disease prevention in Aichi Prefecture.

Shimada said that in about 35 percent of cases, the elderly start requiring such assistance due to physical deterioration, for example because of problems in their joints, while maintaining agility for as long as possible is also crucial.

“Continued use of the device will help a person recover their normal walking speed and strength, and as a result it should prevent the requirement for nursing care,” he said, suggesting the SMA could play a major role in helping the elderly sustain an independent lifestyle.

About 40 SMAs will be tested on 300 seniors during a 10-month trial scheduled to start later this month at Shimada’s center to determine just how much the device can help seniors — and, Honda hopes, to turn it into a game changer among their swelling ranks.

So far, studies have shown that the SMA not only reduces the effort necessary to walk, but that about three months of training helps seniors take longer strides and walk faster even when not wearing the device.

None of the test subjects to date has experienced any problems, such as worsening pain in their knee joints, and use of the SMA also didn’t result in any dependency, Honda’s Oikawa said.

The carmaker sees the SMA as a potentially huge business opportunity.

“The technology could later be adopted all around the world” if other countries with graying populations were to follow Japan’s lead, Oikawa said.

Research of the SMA began in 1999 as part of Honda’s research to develop a humanoid robot. But the original prototype weighed 32 kg and required the user to carry a backpack containing its battery. This made it difficult for even healthy people to walk freely, and meant the device was years away from attracting disabled users.

To overcome this problem, Honda engineers decided that less was more while designing the SMA, settling on a belt-worn device and creating a sensor that assists stride length and walking pace.

Asimo was last in the spotlight when Tokyo Electric Power Co. needed to send in robots to explore the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant’s crippled reactors, as their sky-high radiation levels prevented its workers from setting foot inside. But despite calls from the public to help out the utility, Honda ultimately declined the request, explaining that Asimo was still at the development stage.

Still, research into the robot is what led to the creation of the SMA technology, which Honda hopes will mark a leap forward in assisting people’s lifestyles and livelihoods.

“Although turning the SMA into a commercial product may take time, it could soon be put into practical use,” Oikawa said. “This is a simple product that can be provided at a reasonable price.”