Japan Invents a Cyborg Suit to Clean Up Fukushima

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Japanese robotics wizard Yoshiyuki Sankai invented his science fiction-inspired robotic exoskeletons to help disabled people, but a new model aims to speed up the clean-up at Fukushima. On Monday, Sankai unveiled a new version for his suit, the Hybrid Assistive Limb (code-named HAL, of course), that is designed to provide better shield against radiation and to help carry some of the load for the underpaid and under-protected recovery workers.

The Japanese government expects the nuclear disaster at Fukushima to cost $30 billion over the next 30 years, in part because cleanup workers can only work so many hours in the radioactive environment and are weighed down by 132-pound tungsten anti-radiation vests when they do.

"This new type of HAL robot suit supports the weight of tungsten-made protective clothing and enables their wearers to work on the site without feeling the burden," Sankai's company Cyberdyne — which is also the name of the robot corporation in the Terminator movies — said in a statement. "It is hoped that this will reduce risks of working under harsh environments and contribute to early restoration operations by humans in the wake of disasters."

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Japanese journalists left little doubt over what kind of disasters HAL might be able to assist with, but AFP reports: "It has not been decided whether the new robot suit will be used in work to contain the situation at the Fukushima plant."

If conditions are at all comparable to those described in a New York Times report in June, the Fukushima workers could use all the help they can get:

Of about 2,500 workers at the plant, all but 300 of them are hires of subcontractors and subsubcontractors who receive little job security, benefits or insurance for injuries or the effects of radiation.

Unwinding for the night, workers described the arduous work at the site, constricted by bulky protective suits and suffocating masks. … Goshi Hosono, an adviser to the prime minister, acknowledged that workers might not have been adequately protected. "In our early response, we did not have a system in place to manage radiation risks," he said.

We'll be the first to say it: HAL looks awesome. Described both as a "wearable robot" and "the world's first cyborg-type robot," the model pictured to right gives you a rough idea of the suits main features. The Control Unit more or less serves as the machine's brain, while the various battery-fueled Power Units are the engines. The Bio-Electric Signal Sensors actually attach to the wearer's skin to pick up on "faint biosignals" that pulse through our skin and enable HAL to predict the wearer's next move. We're not sure how well it works, but if you painted it blue and strapped a cannon on the right arm, it would look just like Mega Man. See the comparison?


As futuristic as HAL looks, it's been in development since 1997. After founding Cyberdyne in 2004, Sankai gave the first public demo of HAL in 2005 and began mass producing the suits in 2009, a milestone that was met by an explosion of international media attention. Sankai isn't just in it for the press clippings, however. At about $14,000 to $19,000 per suit, the commercial versions are now used in 113 hospitals and welfare centers, by AFP's count. An earlier model is pictured above. You can see the new suit here.

It goes almost without saying the the United States military is developing similar technology. Instead of the fun Mega Man look and the friendly nickname HAL, the military's preferred model looks like it could go rogue in a destructive way. Its name, appropriately, is HULC.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.