U0205260 - Domingue Jean Michel David (Apologies on the unoriginal innovative title and intro =P) Have you read this post by Janesh on the Human Washing Machine? If you haven’t done so yet, I suggest that you click here and take a look. Go now – we’ll be waiting for you ;-) Yes you read right – a washing machine for humans. Adjusting the temperature of the water and releasing body shampoo, the cleansing action kicks in for the person to enjoy a bubbling bath. The most useful application here is for elderlies and at the rate at which the population is aging, it is looking to be for everyone's benefit - clever, practical and attractive automated and robotics products to help us age gracefully. Which leads us nicely to the topic of robots at the service of elderlies. Assistive technology and healthcare robotics is fast becoming the future of elderly healthcare. As reported here, the Japanese are developing ultimate care givers for people. The application developed here is the robot suit "Hybrid Assistive Limbs (HAL)" and is aimed at helping elderly people with weak muscles or physical difficulties. "HAL is state of the art power assist system in the world" It looks like an armor, or "a motor-driven metal exoskeleton" and straps onto a person’s arms, legs and back. The system automatically adjusts itself to the wearer. How? When anyone wants to move, stand or walk, electric current on the skin's surface are generated when nerve signals are sent to the person's muscles. These currents are picked up by the sensors - a bio-cybernic system consisting of bioelectronic sensors (angle sensors, myoelectrical sensors, floor sensors) is used here. A computer (which, together with motordrivers, measurement system, wireless LAN, and power supply is carried as a backpack) receives these signals and translates them into signals of its own for controlling motors at the joints (hips and knees) of the exoskeleton. Coordination of further movements by the system is done using the known state of the suit and recorded patterns of the wearer. The control system itself consists is a hybrid one with an autonomous controller (posture control) together with the power assist controller based on the biosensors input and predictive feedforward. As shown in the picture, the student testing the suit can hold three packs of rice(!) but more importantly, the suit can give an average man twice as much strength - it allows "a person who can barely do an 176-pound leg press handle 397 pounds." Interestingly, “the motors respond faster to signals from the wearer's brain than their own muscles”. As patients with brain and spinal injuries request for more of this new application, the developers are looking to include medical rehabilitation with the suit. Click on the picture for a more detailed view. Read more about it here, here or here. The market for assitive robotics is still very young and results have shown that robot technology in this area have greatly help to boost recovery of patients.
At the same time, it seems that in the quest for advancements in robotics, assistive and healtcare robotics is a good platform for such development. Alongside Medical robotics, assistive ability and learning to care for and help humans is an area where much higher level of automation can be developed and tested for robots.