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Panasonic's robotic exoskeletons could help nuclear plant workers

Lightweight, compact suits could help support the weight of radiation clothing and equipment

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If you've ever seen the science-fiction classic "Aliens," you might wonder when powered exoskeleton suits will help us do battle against nasty extraterrestrials.

A Panasonic group company is building heavy-duty strength-boosting suits, but so far they're aimed at industrial applications instead of aliens.

Exoskeletons that can help workers shoulder the burden of heavy gear and protective clothing could be useful at nuclear plants, according to ActiveLink, which is about 80 percent-owned by the electronics giant.

Powered exoskeletons have been used in a number of applications, including Iron Man-like suits that make U.S. soldiers stronger, and robotic leg braces that have helped paralyzed people walk.

ActiveLink, which demoed its PowerLoader suits at Panasonic in Tokyo on Monday, believes another early application could be supporting nuclear power plant workers, both in regular maintenance tasks as well as disasters like the one that hit the Fukushima Daiichi power plant in northern Japan in 2011.

"Our powered suits could be used to assist and support remote-controlled robots in emergencies," ActiveLink President Hiromichi Fujimoto said in an interview. "Workers could wear the suits to carry PackBots to their deployment point and to work in low-radiation areas."

The nuclear exoskeleton could be based on technology that went into ActiveLink's recent PLL-04 Ninja prototype. It's a battery backpack and motorized leg braces that can assist with a force of up to about 150 newtons, depending on feedback from its force sensors.

Weighing about 15 kilograms, the Ninja can help users walk at up to 12 kilometers per hour, providing a boost to weary bodies.

Workers at Fukushima are likely to be weary: The tungsten clothing or shielding they wear to protect from radiation can be cumbersome -- the heavier the shielding, the better the protection. And the PackBot robots they use to assist them can weigh as much as 27 kg. Equipped with hazardous materials sensors the PackBots, developed by iRobot of Massachusetts and used extensively by the U.S. military, were used to investigate hazardous areas of Fukushima Daiichi after the reactors melted down.

ActiveLink is cooperating with Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and Japan Atomic Power, both nuclear energy companies, to develop powered suits. An experimental model could be ready by 2017.

The startup previously developed the MS-02 PowerLoader, a large, heavy exoskeleton with 22 servomotors that has force sensors for the legs and feet. It enables users to pick up 50 kg with each arm -- enough to carry a small motorcycle, the company showed in one demonstration.

ActiveLink's suits are designed so that users can strap them on and start working in 30 seconds or less. Powered exoskeletons for rehabilitation or other medical uses often use muscle electrical activity sensors that take time to calibrate, Fujimoto said.

ActiveLink only makes designs and prototypes, though, and Panasonic is positioned to provide manufacturing and sales support for its suits.

But could the startup ever create the futuristic power suit from "Aliens"?

"Technically speaking it's possible to make, even today," Fujimoto laughed. "But there are two things missing: the budget and the aliens."



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