TSUKUBA, Ibaraki Pref. — Scientist Yoshiyuki Sankai was fascinated in his childhood by robots depicted in the U.S. literary classic “I, Robot” as well as Japanese comic books such as “Cyborg 009” and “Tetsujin No. 28.”
Now he has become the creator of one of the world’s most advanced robotic technologies: a robot suit.
The lower-body suit, called Hybrid Assistive Limb-3, is designed to help disabled or elderly people smoothly perform everyday activities such as walking and climbing up and down stairs. It will go on sale later this year as the world’s first commercial product of its kind.
“As a child, I was thrilled at the possibility that machines can help people expand their (physical) abilities, and I still have that feeling,” said Sankai, 46, a professor at the University of Tsukuba’s institute of systems and engineering mechanics. “As a researcher, I have been working on projects to study how to supplement weakened human functions by (using) machines.”
The powered suit consists of frames to support the user’s legs and has motors installed at knees and hip joints, sensors to detect changes on skin surfaces, a battery and a computer to control the system.
When a user tries to move a leg, the sensors detects through the user’s skin faint electrical signals transmitted from the brain to muscles. The computer analyzes what the user is going to do, and almost simultaneously the motors start moving to support the user’s motion.
The prototype HAL-3 suit weighs 15 kg to 17 kg, but users would not find it heavy because the heel section absorbs the weight. The weight of the commercial version will be less than 10 kg because it will use light and thin components, Sankai said.
Sankai said he hopes to introduce HAL-3 on the market around autumn through his venture firm, Cyberdyne Inc.
“The most difficult part (in developing the suit) was to develop a system to gauge the user’s will” from the physical signals to make the motors move, he said. “If the motors start moving one-trillionth of a second behind (the right timing), it would become a drag to the user.”
Sankai became interested in integrating human functions with machines when he was a child with a passion for robot books, which led him to some experiments.
When he was in the fourth or fifth grade at an elementary school in Okayama Prefecture, he used a device he built to give electric shocks to bullfrogs to observe the contraction of their leg muscles. He also did experiments to observe how frozen goldfish could be revived.
He even wanted to use his mother’s ruby ring to make a laser beam, imitating what robot heroes used as weapons in animated films and TV programs.
He said these experiences led him to study how human functions are supplemented by machines.
After working for years on research projects related to robotics, Sankai initiated the robot suit project in 1995. he built the first HAL prototype in 1997.
He is currently working to develop an upper-body suit, which he plans to unveil at the 2005 World Exposition in Aichi Prefecture, and to upgrade the HAL-3.
The innovation of the upper-body suit is expected to speed up because the University of Tsukuba has allocated about 50 million yen to his project in the first half of fiscal 2004, he said, adding that 100 million yen was spent on developing HAL-3 over the past six years.
“I think we will be able to make the robot suit thin enough so that people can wear it like clothing in four to five years,” Sankai said, adding that the robot suit will be useful not only for medical and rehabilitation purposes but also for rescue work and sports training.
For example, data of baseball player Hideki Matsui’s hitting form can be memorized in the system of the robot suit, Sankai said. By wearing that suit, other players can experience Matsui’s muscle movements, he said.
Sankai, a leader in the global race to develop robot suit technology, said his task goes beyond developing technologies.
He is trying to nurture young researchers to become more aggressive in launching venture businesses. He said he also wants to revitalize Tokyo’s Ota Ward, where high-tech firms as well as midsize and small manufacturers are concentrated, through the robot suit business.
In June, Sankai founded Cyberdyne at the university to develop and market robot suits. Some graduate students supervise operations as executives.
The firm, with 10 million yen in capital, has received more than 100 advance orders, mainly from people with disabilities, he said. Each HAL-3 unit is customized to meet users’ needs and physical conditions.
HAL-3 will retail for 1 million yen to 2 million yen each for individual customers and between 10 million yen and 20 million yen for corporate customers, including hospitals, because it would need to be adapted to meet the needs of a wider range of people.
Sankai is also deepening relations with some small companies in Ota Ward that are processing components for the robot suit.
“Firms in Ota Ward are experiencing a hard time” as Japan’s manufacturing industry is being transferred to other parts of Asia, he said. “I would like to change the situation there by forming an alliance with the ward office to help revive the ward as a center for most advanced engineering technology.”
Those efforts are based on his belief that one role of a researcher is to create a new academic field that leads to the development of a new industry.
“It would have taken years to commercialize the robot suit if we had not done it,” Sankai said, citing a reluctance by major companies to develop a new product that cannot be mass-produced or involves safety problems.
“I always want to see the fruits of my research projects go back to society whenever it’s possible.”