Japanese carmaker Toyota has designed a robotic leg to help disabled people walk.
The company demonstrated the new device to reporters at its headquarters in Tokyo this week.
The robotic leg is called the Welwalk WW-1000 system. It has a mechanical frame that fits onto a person’s leg below the knee. Patients can practice walking on a special treadmill.
Eiichi Saito is a doctor and an executive vice president at Fujita Health University. His university helped Toyota develop the robotic leg.
Saito said it is designed to be worn on one leg for patients who are paralyzed on one side of their body because of a stroke or other disease.
The device is attached with a strap to the thigh, knee, ankle and foot of the person using it. A motor helps to bend and straighten the knee. Sensors provide information about what is happening and medical staff can control the system through a touch panel screen.
“This helps just barely enough,” said the researcher, who said helping a patient too much can slow recovery.
Japanese carmakers are also making robots
Japanese carmakers have been developing robotics for manufacturing and other uses for many years.
Honda Motor Co., for example, has developed the Asimo humanoid robot that can run, dance and speak.
Toyota’s WelWalk system uses robotic technology to assist people in moving and walking. Toyota took about 10 years to develop the robot walker.
Toshiyuki Isobe is with Toyota’s Frontier Research Center. He told Reuters news service that it has taken the company time to develop robotics products.
“The biggest challenges have been in determining the needs of the robot market, which is relatively new, and to ensure that our products are safe,” he said.
Robots that assist in health care are seen as an important and growing market.
Growing market for robots in healthcare
Eiichi Saito says Toyota’s device is aimed at helping common paralysis caused by health problems like strokes that can happen to aging people. Japan’s population is aging faster than other countries. In 2015, more than 26 percent of Japanese were aged 65 or older.
Robotic devices may also be better for patients in some cases. Saito said patients using the device can recover more quickly because the robotic sensors in the WelWalk are more sensitive to movement than a human health worker.
Some experts expect demand for robots used to assist in care of the old and disabled will increase sharply. That is because there will be fewer people in the work force to care for the growing number of older patients.
The International Robotic Federation says more than 37,000 robots used in healthcare for the aged and disabled will be sold between 2016 and 2019. It says the field is expected to increase a lot in the next 20 years.
Toyota plans to rent 100 of the robotic systems to medical centers in Japan later this year. Costs include a $9000 one-time charge and a monthly rental cost of $3,200.
However, competition in walking assistance devices is growing. The medical technology company Hocoma of Switzerland and ReWalk Robotics of the United States also have developed robotic walkers.
I’m Mario Ritter.
Words in This story
treadmill –n. a machine used for exercise or rehabilitation that has a large belt that moves allowing a person to walk or run on it without moving
paralyzed –adj. unable to move, unable to walk
touch panel screen –n. a kind of computer screen that operated by touching the screen
humanoid –adj. like a human being
challenge –n. a difficult task, something that is hard to do