Practical exoskeletons have moved considerably closer to everyday use with the news that Honda has begun leasing 100 of its Walking Assist Devices to hospitals in Japan so that it can monitor and validate their usefulness in the real world.
Honda's announcement means it has joined Panasonic's Activelink Powerloader, Cyberdyne's HAL, Argo Medical Technologies' Rewalk, Rex Bionics' REX, Ekso Bionics EKSO, Raytheon's XOS2, RB3D's Hercule and Lockheed Martin's HULC exoskeletons, which are all at or close to market.
Cyberdyne's HAL with Professor Sankai, probably the world's foremost at-market exoskeleton at this point in time
Honda's Walking Assist Device is designed to provide assistance and rehabilitation, as are most of the exoskeletons in the above list, while the work being done by RB3D, Raytheon and Lockheed Martin is primarily aimed at at the military marketplace where exoskeletons will provide strength and endurance to soldiers.
Honda's Walking Assist Device has been under development for 14 years, as has the company's Bodyweight Support Exoskeleton, which has also been tested as a worker assist device. Much of the work being done in a military context is also applicable to worker assist devices.
The Honda R&D work around exoskeletons has been closely associated with Honda's Asimo robot which has been focused on the study of human walking. Just as Asimo's ability to walk in a variety of environments (slopes, stairs, rough ground etc.) has progressed over the last decade, the Walking Assist Device is controlled by computer and takes into account many different sensors in order to, according to Honda, "improve the symmetry of the timing of each leg lifting from the ground and extending forward, and to promote a longer stride for an easier walk."
The compact 2.6 kg device has been designed through Honda working collaboratively with medical and research institutions and has been developed through use in seven hospitals. The leasing program announced today will add significant impetus the research though, as two exoskeletons (one medium and one large size) will be leased to 50 different hospitals.
Though we've all been waiting for a long time for a device which will enable us to run a three minute mile, go for a 100-mile jaunt or hit a golf ball out of sight, have patience – work is progressing in institutions around the world, and sports exoskeletons are on the agenda, as the above poster on the Japanese D-ART stand at iREX 2011 indicates.