The Honda Walking Assist Devices attempt to augment human mobility with robotic power. Earlier today I took the futuristic prototypes for an exclusive "first outdoors spin" in Times Square.
Honda is developing both the Stride Management Assist (the one that looks like a belt) and the Bodyweight Support Assist (the robotic legs and seat) to help elderly or otherwise mobility-challenged people regain the ability to walk on their own or extend their current range of abilities. There are also potential workplace applications; the devices could reduce the strain of heavy lifting, repetitious bending, walking long distance or even standing for long periods of time.
The Honda Stride Management Assist is the simpler of the two products and probably the one that makes the most sense. It's designed for people with weakened muscles that can still walk on their own, but could use some help getting back in shape after an injury or tackling difficult tasks like walking up steps. Basically, a motor sits on each hip and helps lift the leg using and arm and strap connected down by your knee. Its your own movement that activates and controls the length and degree of assistance, so you won't find the device trying to force you into movements you didn't already want to make.
The help the Stride Management Assist provides is most evident walking up stairs two at a time; you can feel the motor helping lift your leg to a fairly extreme level while your own effort is minimal. It's still a natural movement, just a natural movement that's easier while you're wearing the device. That assistance can also be felt taking long strides, but sadly won't boost your running speeds or jumping heights to superhuman levels. Honda says the idea is to reduce exertion, not boost strength.
In addition to just providing assistance, the Stride Management Assist helps train its users muscles to move more efficiently. In this way, wearers will build muscle strength, posture and increase the length of their stride, moving towards a time when they will no longer need to use the device. Honda envisions hospitals and physical therapists being the main customers for the Stride Management Assist, but it could also be used by the elderly as a way to extend their personal freedom. Eventual customer-ready systems could be slim enough to fit underneath normal clothing. As it is, the total package weighs just 6 Lbs, so you can barely feel it. It'll run 2 hours on a full charge.
The Honda Bodyweight Support Assist has a far greater range of abilities, but it's also far more obtrusive. Walking around in it outside the W Hotel in Times Square, I got looks ranging from confused smiles to "Who's the crazy person? Time to cross the street."
To put it on you sit down, take off your own shoes, then strap yourself into the dorky black and silver orthopedic items connected to the carbon fiber legs. Turn both legs on, then lift the seat up into your crotch. Move your legs up and down and you get the kind of jerky, mechanical movement that you'd expect from a pair of robotic legs.
Like the Stride Management Assist, the Bodyweight Support Assist is designed to help people with weakened leg muscles and mobility, but adds the ability, as the name suggests, to support bodyweight during squats, crouches etc. Over the belt, the legs also add the ability to take load off the knees and hips, something older people constantly reminded that I'll appreciate in twenty or thirty years.
As it stands now, the Stride Management Assist doesn't do much for my healthy, young body except limit my natural range of movement and speed. Still, it's pretty neat crouching down and having something support your pelvis. It's like your very own seat that walks around with you wherever you go. The total device, including batteries, weighs 14 Lbs, but supports its own weight. A full battery charge is good for 2 hours of use.
Honda sees the Stride Management Assist finding favor with large manufacturing companies since it could help keep and aging manual labor workforce more efficient for longer. Another application could be tourism, providing museum goers, tour takes or sports fans with a little help walking long distance then standing for long periods of time.
As devices to assist with rehabilitation after injury and increase mobility for the elderly the Honda Walking Assist Devices make a lot of sense. They not only decrease fatigue, but they help train muscles and their owners to work together in a more efficient manner. The only downside is that they don't provide super strength to already fit people as we'd originally hoped. Honda doesn't want to put a date or a price on either device coming to market, but judging by the production-ready nature of the two we tested, expect to see them in the hands of corporate customers in the near future for what Honda says will be a "reasonably affordable" price.