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March 2003

A Muscle Suit You Can Strap Right On
By Irene M. Kunii

Call her robo-nurse. When Yasue Tsukui straps into a prototype Power Suit, its computer-controlled, air-driven limbs multiply her strength dramatically. The 95-lb. engineering grad student can carry a 150-lb. man without breaking a sweat. A refined version of the suit promises to make it easier for nursing-home attendants to shift patients or for construction workers to haul armloads of two-by-fours.

Credit for this robotic suit goes to the man in Tsukui's arms, Keijiro Yamamoto, a professor of welfare-systems engineering at the Kanagawa Institute of Technology near Tokyo. His breakthrough came five years ago when he perfected forerunners of sensors that line the suit's arms, back, and legs and relay muscle activity data to a small computer. This backpack-mounted brain, in turn, instantly regulates how much air should flow to or be prevented by high-pressure air bags that are connected to an onboard air pump. As they inflate and deflate, the air bags add force to the wearer's efforts and help maneuver the 45-lb. suit.

Next, Yamamoto plans an improved version of the suit that should sell for $1,700 or less. He also hopes to develop similar but smaller devices to restore strength and mobility to people with disabilities.