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Toyota expects to offer health care robots in 2013

Robotic exoskeleton designed to help paralyzed patients walk again

Toyota Motor Corp. is bringing high tech to health care, as it works on a family of robots geared to lift patients and help the paralyzed walk.

The Independent Walk Assist is mounted onto the patient's paralyzed leg, and helps the knee to bend to facilitate natural walking. (Photo courtesy of Toyota)

The company announced this week that it expects to begin selling the health aid robots in 2013.

"[Toyota] endeavors to provide the freedom of mobility to all people, and understands from its tie-ups with the Toyota Memorial Hospital and other medical facilities that there is a strong need for robots in the field of nursing and healthcare," the company said. "We aim to support independent living for people incapacitated through sickness or injury, while also assisting in their return to health and reducing the physical burden on caregivers."

One of the robotic devices in the Toyota Partner Robot series is a mechanical exoskeleton for people's legs. The device, dubbed the Independent Walk Assist, uses computer sensors to help people suffering from paralysis or other ailments to walk again.

The device seems similar to a robotic exoskeleton developed by researchers at the University of California at Berkeley that helped a paralyzed student walk across the stage to receive his diploma last spring. University researchers began working on wearable robots in 2000 when the U.S. military backed their research to help soldiers carry heavy loads for longer periods of time.

Toyota is working on several other health-care related robots, including the Patient Transfer Assist. This machine uses a mobile platform, weight-bearing arms and robotic controls to lift and move patients as if they're being carried by another person, according to Toyota. The robot is designed to be used by caregivers or patients.

"Each robot incorporates the latest in advanced technologies developed by [Toyota], including high-speed, high-precision motor control technology, highly stable walking-control technology advanced through development of two-legged robots, and sensor technology that detects the user's posture as well as their grasping and holding strength," reported Toyota.

Earlier this week, economists from MIT told an audience at a robotics symposium in Cambridge, Mass. that robots and computers will be moving in greater mass into the workforce , even replacing humans in mid-level jobs, such as clerical and call center workers.

The economists said the shift to more robots in the workplace will change the economy in the near future and create a demand for worker retraining.

Robotic exoskeletons have been the subject of a wide-ranging research in the past decade. In 2009, the Japanese company Cyberdyne Inc. built a robotic suit dubbed Robot Suit HAL . Also a robotic exoskeleton, Hal was designed to be worn much like a real suit, only this one is aimed at helping people achieve mobility after suffering a stroke or accident.

The arms of the Patient Transfer Assist are equipped with precise control functions to provide gentle transport similar to being carried by a person. (Photo courtesy of Toyota)

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed . Her e-mail address is sgaudin@computerworld.com .

Read more about emerging technologies in Computerworld's Emerging Technologies Topic Center.


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