Japanese design studio D-Art seems to be popping up in all the right places. Its design for a robotic exoskeleton arm was demonstrated at the International Robotics Expo in November, with an target retail price US$2500 to US$3000 projected for 2013, and just a fortnight later at the Tokyo Motor Show, it showed an all-electric three wheeler named the "Style." The 30 kg Style will do around 25 km/h for 20 km, and costs JPY500,000 (around US$6500).

The D-Art company is no stranger to three-wheelers, having produced a limited edition tilting three wheeler named the Hagane a few years back - the Hagane used a proprietary D-Art two-wheeled front end on a Yamaha majesty scooter.

D-ART's Style was just one of four three-wheeled, tilting electric vehicles shown at the currently-running Tokyo Motor Show.

Honda has finally electrified its Canopy three wheeler in the form of the eCanopy..

And Yamaha showed a three-wheeler which will sit somewhere between electric wheelchairs and electric scooters and bicycles. Yamaha's role in the shaping of the global EV market might yet be very significant.

The company works closely with Toyota, which is the world's largest automotive manufacturer and its electric scooters, bicycles and other small mobility devices look likely to supplement Toyota's own efforts in micro-mobility such as the iReal, Winglet and its partner robots.

Finally, there were two other electric three wheelers announced at Tokyo and they were both prototypes from start-up Kobot, which is a joint-venture between one of Japan's industrial giants, Kowa, and one of the country's brightest and most successful pure robotics designers, Tmsuk.

With seemingly so much in common between robotics and automotive design, it's interesting to see that D-ART has a foot in both camps.

The company's robotic design interests make an interesting parallel for its transportation design aspirations.

The Robot Arm

The Japanese Government's long-term push for developing robotics to support its ageing population is beginning to finally bring products to market. One such product that has been shown in earlier prototype forms in 2007 and 2008 is a motion assist robot arm developed by Yano lab at GIFU University, and designed in conjunction with D-ART.

The powered-exoskeleton is now very close to market. The robotic arm senses the users intentions by reading biometric signals from sensors built into the cuff, can lift two kilograms in weight and is expected to cost between JPY 200,000 (USD$2260) and JPY 200,000 (USD$3390) when it goes on sale, most likely next year. There's also a lower limb version in development and a sports version, for people who aren't handicapped in any way coming too

The third "Motion assist robot arm for upper limb" prototype in the series developed by Yano Labs was shown at iRex in Tokyo at the beginning of December, and when questioned about how close it was to market, staffers on the stand gave indications that it was very close to market, but no time-frame could be discussed. Interestingly, the prototype had benefited from the involvement of D Art and Design & Realizations, two companies with design and marketing expertise whose presence also indicates the product is getting closer to market.

Other indications that the technology is nearing marketplace maturity were the additional models and concepts being shown alongside the robot arm. Prior to this year, most of the work that had been publicly shown by Yano Lab, and all of the papers its key researchers had published, centred on algorithms designed to smooth the movements of robotic arms, and other products for assisting the aged and disabled - alongside the robot assist arm, the laboratory has been designing robots to assist elderly people with feeding themselves.

The addition of a powered unit for each leg and the promise of units for non-handicapped people for recreational purposes indicate that the powered exoskeleton market that has been promised for so long may soon spring to life.

With a foot in each of the micro-transportation market and the exoskeleton market, D_ART looks perfectly positioned.

View gallery - 50 images