April 9, 2010

JAPAN: Robo-suit promises superpowers for greying farmers

. SINGAPORE / The Straits Times / Tech & Science / April 9, 2010 By Antoine Bouthier, AFP TOKYO - While Robocop and Iron Man can dodge bullets and crush villains, a new powered suit from Japan promises its elderly users more modest powers, such as pulling up radishes without getting a backache. Unlike its heavily-armed Hollywood counterparts, the Power Assist Suit aims to make life easier for Japan's army of greying farmers. The metal-and-plastic exoskeleton boasts eight electric motors that amplify the strength of the wearer's arms and legs, as well as sensors that can detect movements and respond to commands through a voice-recognition system. A Tokyo Agriculture and Technology (TAT) University postgraduate student is seen demonstrating the new power-assist suit for elderly agriculture workers, developed by TAT professor Shigeki Toyama. Photograph by: Yoshikazu Tsuno, AFP Professor Shigeki Toyama and his team developed the power-enhancing suit at the Tokyo University of Agriculture and Technology, and Toyama plans to set up a company to start producing the futuristic outfit by the end of the year. 'If the farmer bends over to grasp a radish, his back will be firmly supported,' said Gohei Yamamoto, one of the students working on the team, as he recently demonstrated the suit on his university campus. 'A brief vocal instruction will instantly straighten the rods along his legs, giving him the power he needs to pull the vegetable without effort.' Fifteen years in the making, the robosuit should hit the Japanese market in 2012, when it will initially retail for about one million yen (S$15,000), a price tag its makers hope to halve if the device is mass-produced, the team said. Japan, with a low birthrate and a high life expectancy, is facing a demographic crisis as its population rapidly ages and shrinks. Industrial robots have long been common in Japan, and robo-suits are making inroads in hospitals and retirement homes, where they can help carers lift patients or aid in physical rehabilitation exercises. But with two thirds of the country's farm-workers already over 65 years old, the agriculture sector is a potentially lucrative untapped market. [rc] Copyright © 2010 Singapore Press Holdings Ltd