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Robotic legs a step in the right direction

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Robotic suit to aid walking
  • Robotic legs developed by Professor Sankai to help patients walk again
  • Currently 140 HAL suits in Japan, rented for around $2,000 each month
  • Sankai aims to market the HAL suit to Europe and the U.S.
  • Enquiry from U.S. military was rebutted by Sankai

Tskuba, Japan (CNN) -- Thirty years ago doctors told Noboru Matsumoto he would never walk again.

Matsumoto had suffered severe brain injuries after a motorcycle crash. The accident left his speech slurred and unable to walk properly, though he has some movement in his left leg.

It was in that movement that Professor Yoshiyuki Sankai saw hope for Matsumoto to defy the original doctor's diagnosis.

Professor Sankai is the inventor of the Hybrid Assistive Limb (HAL), a wrap-around robotic belt and legs. Sensors sit on top of the patient's skin that picks up the brain signals instructing the body to move.

"The sensors detect human intentions and finally, the robot walks instead of the human's body," says Professor Sankai.

Because Matsumoto has nerve function, he was the perfect patient to benefit from Professor Sankai's HAL suit.

When I see the smiling faces of the patients my heart is encouraged.
--Professor Sankai, inventor of HAL
  • Asia
  • Japan
  • Isaac Asimov
  • Medical Technology

To demonstrate the "suit", the power was turned on and two nursing aides assisted Matsumoto as he pulled himself up. They assisted, Matsumoto did the standing on his own.

When the steps came, tentative and small, Matsumoto had the infectious smile of a teenager. It was easier to imagine what he looked like before his accident, as he put one foot in front of the other.

Matsumoto has used the robotic legs before at his rehabilitation clinic, but he never tires of the sensation of standing and walking.

"It's hard to explain," says Matsumoto, in halting English. "I'm very happy."

That transformation in the patient is what drives Professor Sankai, as he looks towards globalization of his invention. There are 140 HAL suits in use in Japan, renting for just under $2,000 a month. Professor Sankai is in the final stages of bringing the suits to Sweden and Denmark and is hoping to one day introduce the suits to the U.S., to help the aging baby boomers.

Professor Sankai walked me through Cyberdyne, his venture firm and R&D laboratory where the public can glimpse other models of his HAL suit.

The models vary in size and purpose. There's a bulkier, full body suit aimed at giving caretakers superhuman strength to lift patients in nursing homes. Another variation is more scaled down; looking to a future when the robotic legs are so thin the patient could wear them underneath clothing.

Cyberdyne is science fiction come to life, which is fitting, since Sankai was first inspired by robotics after reading Isaac Asimov's "I, Robot." A theme repeated in Asimov's fiction is the "Three Laws of Robotics," which includes not harming humanity.

While the professor's invention bears the same name as the malevolent robot in the movie "2001: A Space Odyssey", the intention of all of the HAL suits, is benevolent.

Professor Sankai says governments from the U.S. to South Korea have reached out to him to develop his robotic suits for military usage. He's turned down the deep pockets of those governments, he says, because his inventions are only for peaceful means.

The choice is a simple one, says the professor, if you spend any time with his patients.

"Their faces completely change," explained the Professor. "When I see these smiling faces, my heart is also encourages (sic)."

Noboru Matsumoto is certainly smiling more, even as his physical therapy session comes to an end. After each session, he has something that was so elusive three decades ago-- hope.

"Hashiritai desu," says Matsumoto. "I want to run."


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