Science

Monster Machines: The Do-Gooder Exo-Suit With The Really Evil Name

While it’s a shame that the Fukushima disaster could well have been prevented, you can only dwell on the past for so long. If Japan is to move on from this disaster, the Fukushima facility must come down. But how does one disassemble such a highly radioactive structure? One research team hopes the solution involves this new generation of radiation-shielding, strength-magnifying exo-suits.

The Hybrid Assistive Limb, or HAL — yes, like the evil computer from 2001 — is the handiwork of the Cyberdyne Corporation — yes, like the evil computer company from T2 — and is in no way dastardly. Quite the opposite actually.

See, the Fukushima plant has radiation levels floating at about 1000μSv (micro sievert) in its “hottest” spots, down from a high of 400,000μSv last year. Despite the dramatic drop, exposure to just 10μSv for an hour will kill a man — meaning Fukushima would do the job in just 3.6 seconds. Then how do you get clean up crews into those areas? So far the answer has been to have them don 60kg Tungsten vests to protect their internal organs from spontaneous cooking. The (obvious) problem is that these vests are a huge impediment towards doing any sort of meaningful manual labour.

For Yoshiyuki Sankai, professor of engineering at the University of Tsukuba, and his team the answer is simple: build HAL, a thought-controlled cybernetic exosuit, to not only support the user under his 59Kg albatross of protective gear but also provide added radiation resistance and, oh yeah, grant him superhuman strength while they’re at it.

The 1.2m tall suit itself weighs 23kg and is powered by a worn 100V AC battery, which provides nearly three hours of run time on a single charge. The user commands his suit via Cyberdyne’s Cybernic Voluntary Control (Bio-Cybernic Control System). It reads faint electrical signals on the skin present when nerve signals fire, telling your body to say stand up or walk, via a specialised, worn sensor. The suit interprets these signals, compares them to a database of known signals to effectively anticipating the user’s intention, and activates the powered joints to assist the movement, thus man and machine move as one and it takes much less muscle power to move about. What’s more, a series of fans inside the suit will help keep the user cool while an onboard computer will monitor his breathing and heart rate for signs of fatigue.

Cyberdyne recently unveiled the latest version of this suit at the Japan Robot Week last Thursday. While there are already 300 HAL units in use at 130 hospitals and hospices across Japan, there is no word yet on whether the Radi-HAL will be tapped for the Fukushima cleanup. [Wikipedia - Cyberdyne - Inhabitat]


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