Wearable muscle suit makes heavy lifting a cinch – tech – 23 April 2012 – New Scientist

A lightweight exoskeleton will allow the elderly to move around more easily. New Scientist heads to a Japanese laboratory to try it on for size

I’M IN a lab in downtown Tokyo full of grinning engineering students, who are peering past PC monitors and half-completed gadgets to watch me try and lift 40 kilograms of rice. No mean feat, but luckily I am about to be given a power boost.

I shuffle between some boxes and squat down as instructed by research student Hideyuki Umehara, aware of the clutter around me as I fight for floor space with the lower half of a mannequin, an electric wheelchair and an eerily realistic robotic head. Umehara places the bag of rice onto my outstretched arms. Then he presses a switch on the rucksack-like jacket I’m wearing, my hips are propelled forward and gradually my legs straighten until I’m completely upright.

It takes a second to register, but the 40 kg of rice I just picked up like a human forklift truck suddenly seem as light as a feather. Thanks to the “muscle suit” Umehara slipped onto my back prior to the exercise, I feel completely empowered. Fixed at the hips and shoulders by a padded waistband and straps, and extending part-way down the side of my legs, the exoskeleton has an A-shaped aluminium frame and sleeves that rotate freely at elbow and shoulder joints.

It weighs 9.2 kg, but the burst of air that Umehara injected into four artificial muscles attached on the back of the frame make both jacket and rice feel virtually weightless.

The muscle suit is one of a series of cybernetic exoskeletons developed by Hiroshi Kobayashi’s team at the

Later that day, I get the chance to try out the simpler version of the suit, which has no metal sleeves to support the arm. It is noticeably lighter, though the final product, says Umehara, will be lighter still, weighing around 4 kg. “I always thought this was part of fiction,” he says, “but now, it’s just a step away.”

Let the muscle suit take the strain

Exoskeletons won’t just help you lift heavy stuff, you’ll also be able to hold it for longer. Hiroshi Kobayashi’s team at the Tokyo University of Science, Japan, is measuring muscle fatigue using near-infrared spectroscopy, to gauge the benefits of their “muscle suit”. Results show that continuous muscle use without the exoskeleton produces an increase in oxygenated haemoglobin or “oxy” and a decrease in deoxygenated haemoglobin or “doxy”, which indicates muscle fatigue. The difference between oxy and doxy when using the muscle suit was negligible, Kobayashi said. The team expect to present their work at the International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems to be held in Portugal, in October.

Issue 2861 of New Scientist magazine

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