Robot Exoskeletons Are Coming to Japan's Airports

Soon there'll be no excuse to retire.

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Jul 3 2015, 4:00pm

Image: Cyberdyne

On your next trip to Japan, if you fly into Haneda airport in Tokyo, you might catch sight of some exoskeleton-clad staff and robot workers. Japanese technology company Cyberdyne Inc. has teamed up with Haneda to introduce "next-generation robots" into its passenger terminals, including an exoskeleton to help human workers carry heavy loads.

Cyberdyne is headed by professor Yoshiyuki Sankai from Japan's University of Tsukuba, who is best known for his powered exoskeleton suit HAL and his research on applications of cyborg technologies in the medical sphere. HAL stands for "hybrid assistive limb"; it's a device that slips over a person's regular limb, enhancing their strength and agility. The tech is already being used to help rehabilitation patients walk again.

The airport workers will use a similar suit, called the HAL for Labor Support. This device weighs around 3 kg and stays charged for up to three hours. It clips on around a wearer's waist, and a computer, motors, and sensors within the device pick up bio-electric signals (BES) from a wearer's muscles, prompting the suit to support the weight that the wearer is lifting.

Cyberdyne CFO Shinji Uga told me over email that "the main purpose of this type of robot is to prevent back pain."

The suit's support level can also be adjusted, so if you're lifting something really heavy, you can crank up the levels, and lower them when you're only lifting lightweight objects. Ugi said that the device would help a person weighing around 50 kg lift a 20 kg-plus suitcase with ease.

So why has Cyberdyne partnered with an airport? The move, according to a press statement, is partly a bid by the company that manages Haneda—Japan Airport Terminal (JAP)—to "solve labor issues" and make Haneda more attractive for tourists.

Cyberdyne and JAT argue that while the need for airline services in the greater Tokyo area is continuing to grow, Japan is faced with a low birthrate and an ageing population; so, there are basically fewer workers to man the airports.

Enter super-workers clad in the exoskeletons, along with cleaning robots and transport robots that'll supposedly keep any airport running like clockwork.

The exoskeleton. Image: Cyberdyne

Cyberdyne's website states that the suits, which can be rented out for €1,000 ($1,109) per month, are also designed to help women and elderly folk lift heavier objects. "As the devices are designed so light that female or elderly workers can wear, they will encourage participation of those various people into a society with a low birthrate and aging population," it reads.

Uga told me that the company was already working with construction, transportation, and manufacturing companies as well as nursing homes. These suits were also trialled in Sumitomo Mitsui Banking Corps in May 2015 to help a group of workers aged over 65 carry heavy packages of cash.

Aside from the exoskeleton at Haneda, there will be a transport robot that can cart loads of up to 200 kg, and a cleaning robot looks like a mash-up between a regular vacuum cleaner and a mini-fridge on wheels. According to Cyberdyne's website it can take the elevator by itself and hoover along a preprogrammed cleaning route.

It'd be great if kit like Cyberdyne's could ease physical burdens and help keep people in employment. But from a more dystopian angle, I'm left wondering if cyborg exoskeletons could give us less of an excuse for ever retiring.