Japanese company Cyberdyne announced today an improved version of HAL (Hybrid Assistive Limb), the exoskeleton which we wrote about almost two years ago, when a tech journalist took a few steps at CES 2011 wearing the brain-controlled cyber-trousers.
The latest version of HAL has remained brain-controlled but evolved to a full body robot suit that protects against heavy radiation without feeling the weight of the suit. Eventually it could be used by workers dismantling the crippled Fukushima nuclear plant.
The new type of HAL is on display today at the Japan Robot Week exhibition in Tokyo. It will be used by workers at nuclear disaster sites and will be field tested at Fukushima, where a tsunami in March 2011 smashed into the power plant, sparking meltdowns that forced the evacuation of a huge area of northeastern Japan.
HAL – coincidentally the name of the evil supercomputer in Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” – has a network of sensors that monitor the electric signals coming from the wearer’s brain. It uses these to activate the robot’s limbs in concert with the worker’s, taking weight off his or her muscles.
Yoshiyuki Sankai, professor of engineering at the University of Tsukuba, said this means the 60-kilogramme (130-pound) tungsten vest workers at Fukushima have to wear is almost unnoticeable. He said the outer layer of the robot suit also blocks radiation, while fans inside it circulate air to keep the wearer cool, and a computer can monitor their heart-rate and breathing for signs of fatigue.
The robot is manufactured by Cyberdyne, a company unrelated to the fictional firm responsible for the Terminator in the 1984 film of the same name.
Inventor Eiji Koyanagi of the Chiba Institute of Technology said the devices could be deployed very close to the damaged reactor core at Fukushima.
“We have to think of ways to protect nuclear workers, otherwise Fukushima won’t be sorted out,” he said, although even with working in exoskeletons the deactivation of the damaged power plant is expected to take several decades.