As something that infants learn to do naturally when they’re only months old, walking is easy to take for granted. But what happens when it becomes less automatic or more challenging for any number of reasons? More important, what can be done to help when the ability to walk is lost or impaired?
Honda’s corporate mantra is "to be a company society wants to exist." This goal explains why we are deeply involved in experimental research to create devices that will help counteract the forces of time, nature, or accident that impede the human ability to move bipedally. While we aren’t there yet, we are making promising progress.
Walking is an extremely complex process, requiring full-body balance, involving hundreds of specific motions. In fact, the very process of standing upright requires constant balance, engagement of the muscles and bones, and adjustment to one’s surroundings.
While many people may think of Honda as a company more interested in driving habits than walking habits, it all stems from the same interest: Honda’s desire to enhance and facilitate the joy of human mobility…be it driving, riding, walking, boating, or flying…and the freedom and experiential options that accompany it. In fact, we think of ourselves more as a mobility company than as an automobile or motorcycle or engine company. We challenge ourselves to think of mobility in broad, innovative terms—and to create products that range from state-of-the-art jet aircraft to devices that may someday help people walk.
A Helpful Humanoid Robot
Our groundbreaking research in human walking led to ASIMO, the world’s most advanced humanoid robot. Through the creation of ASIMO, which stands for Advanced Step in Innovative Mobility, we were able to develop a unique understanding of human movement.
When Honda engineers set out to create a walking robot in 1986, they left the lab and went to the zoo, where they studied human and animal walking habits. It was extremely challenging for our engineers to develop a machine to mimic the complexities of human walking and balance. After several years of research, Honda’s first robots still took up to 20 seconds to complete one step, and they could only walk in a straight line.
Today, however, ASIMO can walk and run forward and backward, continuously changing directions. It can respond with stability to sudden movement, climb stairs, dance, avoid objects, recognize faces, and even go online to check the weather. We hope that someday, ASIMO can be of assistance to people in their homes. Someday humans with limited movement, or who are confined to a wheelchair or bed, may be saying things like "ASIMO, please answer the door, walk the dog, and bring me my medicine."
As a company that values mobility, we also wanted to explore the creation of other types of devices to mobilize people and enhance their independence. Therefore, in 1999, Honda engineers began working to apply ASIMO’s walking and balance control to experimental technologies for personal human mobility. After more than a decade of research, we are proud to have developed the experimental Stride Management Assist device, Bodyweight Support Assist device, and UNI-CUB, all lightweight devices that we hope will someday be available for people who need a leg up.
In April 2008, we showcased our first experimental walk assist device—the Stride Management Assist. It is designed to support people who can walk but have weakened leg muscles. Worn similarly to a belt around the hip and thigh, a miniature motor helps lift each leg at the thigh as it moves forward and backward. In turn, this helps lengthen the user’s stride, making it easier to cover longer distances faster. The Stride Management Assist device is made in small, medium, and large, and weighs approximately five pounds.
Later that same year, we unveiled the Bodyweight Support Assist. This experimental device helps support body weight to reduce the burden on a person’s legs and joints while walking, going up and down stairs, and in a semi-crouching position. It is designed for people who are able to walk but who could use additional leg and body support to perform daily tasks. The device consists of a seat, a lightweight frame that provides support for the legs, and a pair of shoes. It can be used by simply donning the shoes and lifting the seat into position.
Most recently, we introduced the experimental UNI-CUB, which some in the media have called a self-balancing unicycle. The UNI-CUB actually features two wheels. The front is an omnidirectional driving wheel, and the smaller rear wheel moves laterally to facilitate turning. This system allows the rider, sitting on a seat, to control speed, move in any direction, and turn and stop, all by simply shifting his or her weight. Since the rider can freely move forward, backward, side-to-side, and diagonally, he or she can quickly and easily maneuver among other people.
Next Steps, New World
We believe that our research on these Honda Robotics experimental devices may one day add value to human mobility and will be useful to people and society. None of these experimental devices is yet available to the public, and although we have received many inquiries about them, we ask everyone’s patience as we continue our research and development.
In ongoing efforts to test these devices for potential real-world use, we are collaborating with the National Center for Geriatrics and Gerontology (NCGG) in Japan to feature the Stride Management Assist device in its new program to examine what NGCC calls "elder independence solutions." Established to research the needs of people whose walking ability has declined because of aging, the NCGG program will operate from the Elder Health Promotion and Disease Prevention Center in Obu, Japan.
The results from the NCGG program will be leveraged by the Project to Explore Practical Applications of Service Robots, an initiative of the New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organization (NEDO). One of the goals of the NEDO project is to develop standards for service robot technologies in such areas as safety. Based on the data output from the program, at Honda we will continue our own research and improve development, looking into the future applicability of these walking assist devices.
By collaborating with these organizations and projects, we are working toward potentially putting these devices into everyday use, bringing Honda one step closer to realizing our dream of enriching people’s daily lives.
About the author
Jeffrey A. Smith is assistant vice president, Corporate Affairs, at American Honda Motor Co., Inc., in Torrance, California. Smith served as the North American project leader for the ASIMO program and currently oversees corporate communications for American Honda, including Honda Robotics, in North America.