HAL: Hybrid Assistive Limb

I’ve always been interested in designs for human mobility and enhancing  physical capability to improve standards of living. With the aging baby boomers, Canada’s elderly population is predicted to outgrow the population of children for the first time in history.  With age, comes decreased mobility and increased health issues. That is why there is a stronger need now than ever for designs in this area.

This brings us to Cyberdyne’s exoskeleton design, HAL (Hybrid Assistive Limb). It is a cyborg-type robotic suit designed to support human movement by becoming an extension of the wearer’s body. It was designed by Yoshiyuki Sankai, a professor at the University of Tsukuba who is teaching ‘cybernetics’, an area of study that deals with seamlessly integrating the human, the machine and information together.

The suit uses a variety of sensors (accelerometers, floor reaction force sensors under the feet to calculate centre of gravity, angular sensors at the joints, and bioelectrical sensors to detect the wearer’s natural body signals). The sensors are controlled by two complementary control systems (biocybernic and cybernic) that analyze the information from the sensors and activate motors to amplify torque and support the wearer’s intended movements.

The intriguing, but also dangerous, feature of this suit is that it does not require manual control. The wearer doesn’t need to push buttons or use joysticks to control the suit; HAL moves through reading the wearer’s bioelectrical signals and predicts the wearer’s next/intended movement. It takes away the chance of injuring oneself because of human error; however, because of the removal of the wearer’s manual control of the suit and the complete control that technology has over the wearer, it is common for people to be skeptical and afraid to use the suit. Although today’s society is advanced technologically, many people are cautious when it comes to technology, especially when it is on such an intimate level.

The suit was designed initially for use in healthcare, but it has since been expanded to being used in other areas, such as the nuclear workforce and removing radioactive material in Japan. In fact, other companies around the world have also dipped their foot in the realm of wearable robotic suits to enhance and support human capabilities. A few include: Honda’s ‘Walking Assist’, Ekso Bionics, and NASA’s exoskeleton.

Thus said, the future of HAL and similar designs can be considered both positive and negative, depending on where and how it is being used. And this is where our role as designers becomes increasingly important.

My presentation pdf

References:

Cyberdyne
Honda
Ekso Bionics
HAL in use (Article & Video)
Testing HAL (BMC Journal)
HAL for Nuclear Use (Article)
Exoskeletons for Military Use (Article)

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