Tokyo, Japan - Toyota is introducing a wearable robotic leg brace designed to help partially paralysed people walk.
The Welwalk WW-1000 system is made up of a motorised mechanical frame that fits on a person's leg from the knee down. The patients can practice walking wearing the robotic device on a special treadmill that can support their weight.
Toyota said this week 100 of the systems would be rented to medical facilities in Japan later in 2017. The service entails a one-time initial charge of ¥1 million (R124 000) and a ¥350 000 yen (R43 000) monthly fee.
Eiichi Saito, a medical doctor and executive vice president at Fujita Health University, explained that the frame was designed to be worn on one leg at a time for patients severely paralysed on one side of the body due to a stroke or other ailments,
The university joined with Toyota in developing the device.
A person demonstrating it strapped the brace to her thigh, knee, ankle and foot and then showed how it is used to practice walking on the treadmill. Her body was supported from above by a harness and the motor helped to bend and straighten her knee. Sensors in the device can monitor the walking and adjust quickly to help out. Medical staff control the system through a touch panel screen.
Japanese automakers have been developing robotics both for manufacturing and other uses. Honda's Asimo humanoid can run and dance, pour a drink and carry on simple conversations, while WelWalk is more of a system that uses robotics than a stand-alone robot.
Saito said Toyota's device could be very helpful, given how common paralysis due to strokes is in fast-aging Japan. He said patients using it can recover more quickly as the sensitive robotic sensor in Welwalk fine-tunes the level of support better than a human therapist can.
"This helps just barely enough," said Saito, explaining that helping too much can slow progress in rehabilitation.
The field of robotic aids for walking and rehabilitation is growing quickly. A battery-powered wearable exoskeleton made by Israeli manufacturer ReWalk Robotics enables people relying on a wheelchair to stand upright and walk.
Luke Hares, chief technology officer at Cambridge Medical Robotics in Britain, said systems such as these also could also help therapists monitor a patient's progress.
"They can be so much more precise," he said.
Previously, Toyota has shown robots that play the violin and trumpet. It plans to start sales in Japan of a tiny boy-like robot for conversational companionship. It is also investing in artificial intelligence and developing self-driving vehicles.
Toyota's chief officer for research Toshiyuki Isobe said Welwalk reflected the company's desire to apply robotics in medicine and other social welfare areas, not just entertainment. The company also has an R2-D2-like machine, called the Human Support Robot, whose mechanical arm can help bed-ridden people pick things up.
"Our vision is about trying to deliver mobility for everybody," said Isobe. "We have been developing industrial robotics for auto manufacturing, and we are trying to figure out how we can use that technology to fill social needs and help people more."