New Scientist – The muscle suit is one of a series of cybernetic exoskeletons developed by Hiroshi Kobayashi’s team at the Tokyo University of Science in Japan. Scheduled for commercial release early next year, the wearable robot takes two forms: one augmenting the arms and back that is aimed at areas of commerce where heavy lifting is required. The other, a lighter, 5 kg version, will target the nursing industry to assist in lifting people in and out of bed, for example.
It doesn’t have heavy electric actuators and hydraulics, but instead comes with PAMs – pneumatic artificial muscles. These lightweight, mesh-encased rubber bladders are designed to contract when pressurised air is pumped in. The PAMs give up to 30 kg of instant support or more, depending on how far the weight is away from the body. “The power-to-weight ratio is 400 times greater than motor-driven suits,” says Kobayashi, who adds that unlike motors, PAMs are unaffected by water and dirt. A regulator controls the compressed air output based on a signal given by a microprocessor, which in turn communicates with an acceleration sensor in the frame that detects and responds to movement.
Demo from 2009 of Kabayashi pnueumatic muscle exoskeleton
As well as its high power-to-weight ratio, the muscle suit’s huge advantage, Kobayashi says, are its simple controls, which are largely preprogrammed to mimic natural human movements. Walking or lifting are triggered via the jacket’s sensor, which responds to both simple voice commands, such as “start or “stop”, and the body’s acceleration. If the wearer is standing upright or moving more slowly than the preset acceleration threshold then the device will not move. A simple dial can control the suit’s speed. The exoskeleton will be available to rent from ¥15,000 (£115) per month, although Japan’s health insurance will cover 90 per cent of the charge in many cases.
Video form 2010 of a prototype soft pneumatic exoskeleton