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Best foot forward: Toyota's robotic leg brace helps partially paralysed walk

Toyota has introduced a wearable robotic leg brace designed to help partially paralysed people walk.

The Welwalk WW-1000 system is made up of a motorised mechanical frame that fits on a person's leg from the knee down.

Patients can practise walking with the device on a special treadmill that can support their weight.

Toyota demonstrated the equipment for reporters at its Tokyo headquarters on Wednesday.

One hundred systems will be rented to medical facilities in Japan later this year, Toyota said. The service entails a one-time initial charge of a million yen (£7,300) and a 350,000 yen (£2,560) monthly fee.

The gadget is designed to be worn on one leg at a time for patients severely paralysed on one side of the body due to a stroke or other ailments, said Eiichi Saito, a medical doctor and executive vice president at Fujita Health University.

The university teamed up with Toyota to develop the device.

A woman demonstrating the brace strapped it to her thigh, knee, ankle and foot and then showed how it is used to walk on the treadmill. Her body was supported from above by a harness and the motor helped to bend and straighten her knee.

Sensors in the device can monitor the walking and adjust quickly to help out. Medical staff control the system through a touchscreen.

Japanese carmakers have been developing robotics for manufacturing and other uses. Honda's Asimo humanoid can run and dance, pour a drink and carry on simple conversations, while WelWalk is more of a system that uses robotics than a stand-alone robot.

Given how common paralysis due to strokes is in fast-ageing Japan, Toyota's device could be very helpful, Mr Saito said. He said patients using it can recover more quickly as the sensitive robotic sensor in Welwalk fine-tunes the level of support better than a human therapist can.

"This helps just barely enough," he said, explaining that helping too much can slow rehabilitation.

The field of robotic aids for walking and rehabilitation is growing quickly. A battery-powered wearable exoskeleton made by Israeli manufacturer ReWalk Robotics enables people relying on a wheelchair to stand upright and walk.

Such systems also can aid therapists in monitoring a patient's progress, said Luke Hares, chief technology officer at Cambridge Medical Robotics in Britain.

"They can be so much more precise," he said.

Previously, Toyota has shown robots that play the violin and trumpet. It plans to start sales in Japan of a tiny boy-like robot for conversational companionship. It is also investing in artificial intelligence and developing self-driving vehicles.

Toshiyuki Isobe, Toyota's chief officer for research, said Welwalk reflects the company's desire to apply robotics in medicine and other social welfare areas, not just entertainment. The company also has an R2-D2-like machine, called the Human Support Robot, whose mechanical arm can help bed-ridden people pick things up.

"Our vision is about trying to deliver mobility for everybody. We have been developing industrial robotics for auto manufacturing, and we are trying to figure out how we can use that technology to fill social needs and help people more."

AP

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