TOKYO -- Who says journalism is not physically taxing? For a recent assignment, I was given a 3kg robotic "suit" that fits around the waist and weighs almost nothing. I was supposed to let it help me lift suitcases and airport luggage. The device did indeed give me extra strength when lifting 20kg or so suitcases to waist level -- but it took some practice to get comfortable with the thing.
The wearable -- Cyberdyne's Hybrid Assistive Limb, or HAL -- is especially made to support manual laborers in occupations that require all-day lifting. All Nippon Airways on Monday showed it off to reporters.
Cyberdyne was founded in 2004 by President Yoshiyuki Sankai, also a professor at the University of Tsukuba.
The HAL exoskeletons that the company is trying to market are aimed at supporting workers as they extend their limbs, contract their muscles and -- one, two, three -- lift!
Cyberdyne's latest suit might allow certain airline employees to put in long hours of physical labor and not have to worry about incurring lower back pain. ANA is currently testing the device and plans to issue the wearable to baggage handlers and employees who carry aircraft parts.
At Narita Airport, outside of Tokyo, checked baggage usually weighs 5kg to 30kg. Lifting and moving this kind of unwieldy dead weight hour after hour can lead to lower back pain.
ANA hopes the wearable can allow female and senior employees to better carry out this work, which, in turn, would help ANA draw from a deeper labor pool and more easily fill its job openings.
"It feels like I'm being supported by someone behind me," said a female employee in her 30s who was wearing the device while moving a suitcase from a container to a conveyor belt.
The device is meant to detect the faint electrical signals sent from the brain to the muscles that allow us to move. The exoskeleton then gets wind of these signals and pitches in.
But it takes some getting used to. My trial device gave me the sensation of my upper body being pushed up when I lowered a suitcase near ground level. This actually increased my physical burden rather than relieve it.
ANA in November began deploying two HALs on a trial basis at Narita. Many workers who handle luggage said the suits have helped to reduce their loads.
Next month, the airline will expand the trial, giving test devices to workers who carry cargo and jet parts. In all, 25 HALs will be used in the year-long experiment.
A senior ANA executive said that by improving its working environment, the airline hopes to improve its future competitiveness in the labor market.