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Sunday, November 9, 2008

Honda unveils robotic legs that could improve people's mobility

From correspondents in Tokyo

Honda's robotic legs
Moving ... Honda's new robotic legs / AFP

HONDA has unveiled a new walking assist machine designed to make it easier for the elderly to climb stairs and help factory workers.

The computerised leg device is the latest addition to walking technology developed by the Japanese automaker, which announced the world's first two-legged walking robot, ASIMO, in 2000.

The 6.5kg device - consisting of a saddle, leg-like frames and shoes - can reduce the load on users' legs while walking or climbing and descending stairs by supporting bodyweight, Honda said.

Honda said the motor-powered machine is still at an experimental stage, but elderly people and people undergoing rehabilitation who need support for their leg muscles and joints are the main target.

The device is also expected to help assembly workers to keep a crouching position, Honda said, adding that it plans to test the device at one of its factories north of Tokyo.

Like with a unicycle, users ride on the seat sustained by frames that can bend and extend like knees with two motors controlled by signals from sensors inside the shoes.

"We used ASIMO's technology for developing the walking assist device," Masato Hirose, a senior engineer at Honda Research and Development, said.

"ASIMO is designed to be used as a tool, but the walking assist device is designed to complement real human bodies," he said. "Both will exist for the sake of people."

ASIMO, which resembles a child in an astronaut suit, has been used as a receptionist and master of ceremonies at home and overseas, while dancing and singing with musicians at concerts.

Honda has yet to decide on further details such as when the latest device will go on sale and at what price, but the company sees a market for it in Japan, which has an ageing population.

"First, we hope to have visible results in rehabilitation and other medical fields," Mr Hirose said.

"Then we will look at welfare as another target."

Last year, Honda unveiled its first walking assist device with a stride management system, which can help users move their thighs back and forth.