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HAL-5: The exoskeleton robot 'to suit you'

Just two days before the largest earthquake in Japan's recorded history, Cyberdyne showed off its new Hal-5 suit at the inaugural International Forum on Cybernics 2011 in Tokyo.

On March 8 and 9, 2011, just days before the largest earthquake in its recorded history literally moved Japan 8 feet, the country played host to the inaugural International Forum on Cybernics 2011 in Tokyo.

While calling the event groundbreaking might qualify as crass, researchers showcased some truly innovative ideas in the world of cybernics, an emerging field that Japan's University of Tsukuba Cybernics department describes as the "fusion of human, machine and information systems." The word itself is a fusion of cybernetics, mechatronics, and informatics.

One of those ideas, the HAL-5 exoskeleton robotics suit by Tokyo-based company Cyberdyne, is a wearable device that helps ordinary people accomplish extraordinary feats, such as lifting objects they otherwise couldn't. (We covered an earlier iteration of this in 2009.) Think of the improvements possible for caregivers, people with missing or paralyzed limbs, the elderly who want to continue living independently, factory workers, etc.

"We'd like to use the same technology to support both care-giving and heavy duties in factories," says robotics pioneer Yoshiyuki Sankai of Cybernics. (Sankai recently won MIT's Inventor of the Week award for Hal-5.) "Such systems could be connected to interactive IT through game machines."

HAL-5, which is actually a shortening of Hybrid Assistive Limb, follows in the footsteps of prototypes HAL-3 and HAL-4, but is both lighter (33 pounds in the lower-body suit and 55 in the all-body suit) and more efficient. The suit includes smaller motor housings and a tiny wireless computer in a pouch attached to the belt.

Battery-powered commercial suits could initially cost between $14,000 and $19,000--not cheap, but compared to the first prototype unveiled in 2006 for around $50,000, the cost is certainly on its way down.

Cyberdyne plans to start clinical trials of the new robot suit in 2012, reported the Japanese business daily The Nikkei.