Japanese conglomerate Toyota Motor Corp. has produced a robotic leg brace designed to help paralyzed patients learn to walk again.
Called the Welwalk WW-1000, the robotic system is the latest in a new market for medical robots designed for a hospital environment.
Specifically, the Welwalk WW-1000 attaches itself to the legs of patients who have suffered lower body paralysis due to strokes or similar conditions.
Using a series of actuators and fasteners, the robotic leg brace forces its wearer to walk in a pre-determined natural gait, even when they have limited control over their muscles.
This, in turn, helps the patient’s rehabilitation by teaching their muscles correct movement patterns and indeed exercising them to prevent muscle wasting.
Moreover, the system comes with a range of rehabilitation support functions based on motor learning theory, including the ability for a doctor to adjust the difficulty level to suit the patient and to provide feedback about the patient’s gait characteristics.
The entire Welwalk WW-1000 system weighs around 800kg and is the size of a small van.
Toyota began working on rehabilitation robots in 2007, with pilot testing of devices having been ongoing at medical centers since at least 2011.
Now Toyota is offering 100 of these devices to hospitals around Japan. Hospitals will pay an initial fee of 1,000,000 Yen ($9,185), before then paying a reduced monthly fee of 350,000 Yen ($3,215) to continue using the device.
While the company is well known for its industrial robots, Toyota has over the last few decades also been developing the field of ‘Partner Robotics’.
Japan has an aging population and Toyota believes that their lives can be made easier through the use of robots not just for physical but also emotional support.
The primary aim of this Partner Robotics program, according to the company, is to provide the “freedom of mobility for all, and the joy of self-reliance”.
Beyond altruism, Toyota also likely sees this growing into a massive potential market, as older Japanese people demand increasingly sophisticating assistance.