Robot suit inventor becomes Japan’s first robotics billionaire

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Yoshiyuki Sankai, creator of the HAL robot suit, is Japan’s first robotics specialist to make Forbes annual list of Japan’s richest. Professor Sankai is founder and head of cyborg-robot maker Cyberdyne. The medical robotics company has reached a net worth of $1.12 billion, with the share price shooting up fivefold since its March debut on Tokyo Stock Exchange Mothers market for startups.

Professor Sankai first attracted global attention in 2005 with his invention of the world’s first strap-on robot suit dubbed HAL™ (Hybrid Assistive Limb). The wearable robot suit, which restores or improves movement for people who have lost mobility due to old age or physical impairment, is the result of a new field called cybernics, pioneered by professor Sankai. Cybernics combines the fields of cybernetics, informatics, cranial nerve science, behavioral science, robotics and mechatronics–machinery and electronics.

Mobility-assistance robots like HAL can be used for medical purposes, infrastructure inspection, rescue operations and heavy labor situations. HALs have been developed for lower back support, single limb support, lower limb support and full-body support, which assists the wearer to climb stairs, walk easier, pick up heavy loads, etc. Cyberdyne is currently developing a full-body robot suit fitted with a cooling system and radiation shields that would make it possible for workers to clean up nuclear reactors.

How does HAL work?

Brain signals which are sent to muscles produce faint electrical impulses on the skin. These are picked up by sensors attached to the wearer’s skin and are read by HAL’ advanced technology. The motors in the wearable robot then supports the wearer’s motion by moving in accordance with the wearer’s intentions as indicated by the brain signals.

The future market for service robots is huge. Japan’s industry ministry forecasts that the market just for local makers of rehabilitation and elder-care robots will reach $1 billion a year in the next decade, reports Forbes. Over that period the overall service robot market, including robots for medical and non-medical use, is expected to rise sevenfold to $22 billion.

Sankai has worked more than two decades on the development of HAL. Twenty years ago he was a lone entrepreneur working for a market that didn’t exist then but keenly aware of the role that assistance robots could play in a country with a rapidly aging population and a negative birth rate. In the process he developed the new field of cybernics, helped draft international safety standards for medical-treatment and mobility-assistance robots, started a lab and the doctoral program in cybernics at the University of Tsukuba.

As a medical device, HAL can help people regain the use of their legs by training the brain and improving the function of the neural system and health monitoring, for instance watching out for signs of an impending stroke. HAL has not been approved in Japan for medical use yet, but approval is expected this year. The product has been approved in Europe and Germany received its first shipment of HALs this March.