Robotic exoskeletons could revolutionize the medical industry by giving mobility back to those who had lost it. They could also assist with moving and lifting objects, reducing workplace injury. When it comes to exoskeleton development, two countries in Asia stand apart from the rest: China and Japan. What is taking place within each nation’s exoskeleton industry? And what are the key differences between the technology coming from Asia’s two largest economies?
The exoskeleton market is still plagued by high costs, preventing them from seeing significant implementation on a consumer level. However, these costs are slowly decreasing, as exoskeletons move past prototype stages into mass production, absorbing research and development costs. The hope is to bring within the reach of far more people.
With the global robotic exoskeleton industry predicted to reach $6.65 billion by 2026, both China and Japan are deeply invested in the development of effective robotic exoskeletons, both for their ability to assist injured or disabled people and to keep aging populations in the workforce longer.
- Both China and Japan view exoskeletons as key in preventing workplace injury and allowing aging workers to stay in the workforce longer.
- The exoskeleton market is predicted to grow quickly in the coming decade, jointly fueled by decreasing costs and expanded consumer product offerings.
- In Japan, exoskeletons are beginning to be covered by insurance providers, a sign that more widespread medical use is likely to occur.
Japanese healthcare exoskeletons
Chinese and Japanese exoskeletons are both designed to address healthcare and industrial challenges — specifically helping the elderly and aging workers. Here, Japan has led exoskeleton advancements for years.
Cyberdyne Corp. is a leader within Japan’s exoskeleton field. In 2004, the company launched its first exoskeleton: “HAL-3” (HAL stands for “Hybrid Assisted Leg”). It was designed to help people with lower-body problems. Since then, Cyberdyne has released a number of updates to HAL, including a new version of the “HAL Lumbar Type for Labor Support” late last year.
In 2012, HAL was tapped to help with the Fukushima cleanup. It used technology that monitored the health signals of the user, influencing the functionality of the exoskeleton and provided “shielding” to protect the wearer from radiation and other health risks.
Last year, Cyberdyne reported a 30% increase in sales, attributed to updated models. As of late 2016, Japanese public health insurance began covering medical treatment with Cyberdyne’s exoskeletons, an important development for growing adoption of exoskeleton technology in Asia.
In 2015, Hiroshima University, in partnership with medical manufacturer Daiya Industry Co., developed a “minimalist exoskeleton” called Unplugged Powered Suit (UPS). Unlike other exoskeletons that use motors, UPS utilizes the weight of the user to power the suit. It uses a person’s weight when they walk to pump air into a tube that is then sent up the suit into a gel to create an artificial muscle.
In late 2015, Mitsubishi partnered with the Japan Atomic Power Company to develop an exoskeleton for nuclear disasters. It is a Power Assist Suit (PAS) and uses a “hip-knee-ankle” design that is standard fare within the exoskeleton industry.
In 2016, Tatsumi Shokai Logistics unveiled an exoskeleton to assist elderly workers in lifting and moving heavy. It can lift more than 89 kilograms (196 lb.) and was designed for people working in rural areas. Japan-based Tatsumi invested in the technology because many of its workers are older.
In addition, Panasonic unveiled a robotic skeleton for workers and the elderly. It is called “AWN-03” and is created to reduce strain on the lower back by offsetting weight by 15 kilograms (33 lb.). This is not the only exoskeleton Panasonic is working on. ActiveLink, Panasonic’s robotics unit, is working on an exoskeleton called “PLN-01” to help people walk and move easier.
Chinese exoskeleton development
Unlike Japan, exoskeleton development from China in the healthcare field are more limited.
Dexta Robotics is one of the few Chinese companies that have developed significant exoskeleton systems. It developed an exoskeleton glove called Dexmo. It is designed to help a user “feel” an object in virtual reality or to control a robot wirelessly. Perhaps, Dexta can also deploy Dexmo to help disabled people who have nerve damage in their fingers and hand.
The Center for Robotics at University of Electronic Science and Technology of China, based in Chengdu, announced in 2016 that it would put its exoskeleton into production. Unveiled in 2010, their exoskeleton was designed to help disabled people walk by latching onto the waist and legs of the individual wearing it.
The Cloud Intelligent Robotics Laboratory, part of Shandong University, has also developed a robot to help the elderly. While not an exoskeleton, the “intelligent robot” can help elderly people keep track of changes in their home, like if there is an uninvited guest or a gas leak. Could Shandong University launch an exoskeleton for the elderly and disabled next?
Key differences in exoskeleton development
When it comes to exoskeletons for healthcare, there are a few key differences between those coming from China and Japan.
First, Japan is clearly leading this race. But why? One possible explanation is that Japan and China have two different strategies when it comes to their aging populations. Japan wants to make sure its workers stay in the workforce longer, thus why it has invested in assistive technologies with industrial applications.
China, on the other hand, likely views its aging population as a “vulnerability” to its economic growth. That’s why it has invested in automation on a massive scale instead of developing ways to keep the elderly in the workforce (or attract youth).
This leads to the second key difference. If China is looking to automation as a solution for its aging population, but Japan is looking to robotics, what else will come out of Japanese robotic labs to help the elderly and workers in the future? Culturally, Japan is very open to the idea of personal robotic assistants and other robotics and AI enabled household and service robots. Robots are frequently used in nursing homes and other care facilities.
Third and last, the majority of Japan’s exoskeleton development (for healthcare) is being done by private companies, like Cyberdyne, Tatsumi, and Panasonic. In China, it isn’t the private sector that is fueling these advancements but academia. This signals that in Japan, exoskeletons are viewed as a market opportunity. China may still view exoskeletons as a conceptual technology — at least when it comes to healthcare applications.
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Getting a robotic leg up
While Japan is leading this exoskeleton race today for healthcare and industrial applications, it doesn’t necessarily mean they will lead this race tomorrow. If history is any indicator, China will try to catch up. This means exoskeletons that solve healthcare and workplace challenges can become a new ground of competition between Asia’s two largest economies.
There’s also the question of how partnerships with other countries in the region will affect the progress of these countries exoskeleton projects. Can China partner with Russia and develop exoskeletons for agriculture or oil fields? Or, can Japan work with an Indian company to develop exoskeletons for construction workers?
Robotic exoskeletons are a new technology, and they have yet to be perfected in terms of weight, cost, and endurance. But that means that China and Japan’s exoskeleton development in the medical industry may be the beginning of something much larger — where exoskeletons can transform the robotics and assistive care industries in both Asia and beyond.