TOKYO  – Wearable robots could finally be migrating from the movie screen to the workplace floor. If so, the task of lifting heavy objects may at last cease to pose a worry.

Nara-based ActiveLink Co., Ltd. is one company actively behind the effort to commercialize such technology. Established in 2003 with seed money from Panasonic Corp. and trading company Mitsui & Co., the firm’s engineers are excited at the interest shown for their latest products, which began to be marketed in September 2015.

The firm’s flagship device is its AWN-03 Power Assist Suit, a lightweight, wearable, electrically powered machine that helps the wearer to lift and transport payloads. The suit acts principally to support the lower back region, where most of the stress of lifting objects is typically felt. It can reduce the sensed stress by up to 15 kg. It weighs 6.5kg without on-board batteries.

The suit reflects a design evolution partially inspired by the 1986 science-fiction movie Aliens, in which the heroine, played by actress Sigourney Weaver, dons a futuristic, industrial-use exoskeleton suit in a battle to the death with a hostile reptilian space creature.

Aliens captured an imaginative sense of what might be possible to create in the future,” says company engineer Akinori Takechi. “The general concept behind our prototype Dual Arm Power Amplification Robot came directly from the robotic suit that was originally used in the film to move things around in the cargo bay of the spaceship.”

That prototype featured electromagnetic motor-operated arms mechanically connected with components that measured the magnitude and direction of force applied by the operator, allowing him or her to directly ‘feel’ the behavior of the robot. Through practice, this pioneering “Direct Force Feedback” technology enables the user to establish a ‘correspondence’ that allows for better manipulation of the machine.

After studying the complex attributes of the system, however, engineers came to realize that for specific physical movements, all that hardware might not be necessary for the average user. “For the more mundane tasks experienced by workers involved package delivery and at loading docks, it seemed that a full body suit could be replaced by a smaller, more portable unit,” says Takechi.

The result was the development of a series of ActiveLink power-assisted suits four years ago, including the Power Loader Ninja and the Power Loader Light, both of which featured lower body support in addition to back support. The machines were also designed so that users could freely customize its software and hardware.

The smaller AWN-03 Power Assist Suit represents the latest, more simplified stage in the technology.

At ¥1.3 million per copy, an ideal retail price point is likely at lower levels, but the firm has achieved a handful of sales for the AWN-03, which is at least a step in the right direction, says Mr. Takechi. “There seems to be a good deal of interest from package delivery firms and the like, but for now, renting the units seems to be the more attractive option.”

— Brad Frischkorn

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