“Lower back pain is something caregivers, farmers and factory workers know all too well. But engineers in Japan are developing wearable mechanisms that help with heavy lifting, whether it be crates or bedridden patients.
The emergence of robotic assistance suits comes not a moment too soon. Aging societies like Japan’s face a growing need for nursing care workers and a worsening shortage of labor in sectors such as construction and agriculture. Widespread adoption of wearable robots in Japan could help to solve those problems — and provide a template for other graying nations.
A number of wearable support systems are hitting the market. One is the Muscle Suit. Developed by Hiroshi Kobayashi, a professor at the Tokyo University of Science, the contraption fits over the shoulders like a backpack, with one frame component that rests on the back and a second that extends from the waist to rest on the front of each thigh. Inhaling through a mouthpiece activates an air cylinder attached to the frame, inflating two or four rubber tubes that work like muscles. When these artificial muscles contract, they pull on wires connected to the thigh frames; this causes the back frame to move in a way that raises the upper torso.
The standard Muscle Suit, with a set of four artificial muscles, can lessen the load on the back by as much as 30kg. The device itself, including the air cylinder, weighs around 7kg.
Kobayashi and colleagues last year formed a company called Innophys to market the Muscle Suit. One happy customer is caregiving specialist Asahi Sun Clean, which drives to homes with a special portable bathtub to help patients wash.
Every one of the company’s 500 vehicles is now equipped with a Muscle Suit. “It takes the load off my back and I feel far less tired the next day,” said Norikatsu Kimura, an area manager in Yokohama.”