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Japan develops powered armour suit for nuke workers

Motorised limbs allow heavy rad shielding to be worn

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A splendid Japanese professor has offered his "HAL" powered exoskeleton suit for use by nuclear powerplant workers at Fukushima, pointing out that the suit's motorised limbs would allow users to lift radiation-proof armour which would otherwise be prohibitively heavy.

Tsukuba-based firm "Cyberdyne" said in a statement: "This new type of HAL robot suit supports the weight of tungsten-made protective clothing and enables their wearers to work on the site without feeling the burden," reports AFP.

In general, the protective suits worn at radioactive sites can stop only the weakest types of radiation. The suit isn't worn primarily as a barrier to radiation, but rather to prevent airborne radioisotopes contaminating the wearer's body. As Cyberdyne correctly notes, shielding heavy enough to actually stop hard radiation is generally too weighty for people to carry, so the usual method of dealing with such radiation levels is simply to withdraw from such an area or enter it only briefly, so as to stay below safe dosage levels.

Now, however, Cyberdyne is offering its "Hybrid Assistive Limb" (HAL) powered suit for use in carrying the heavy tungsten plates that could offer a useful barrier even in high-radiation situations. We've previously reported on the HAL suit and its colourful inventor, Prof Yoshiyuki Sankai of the University of Tsukuba "Cybernics" lab. "Cybernics" is a term coined by the professor, as he explains:

I had locked myself in my room, and carried out odd experiments day after day. My brain was swelling with knowledge ... Humans only get older and weaker after they grow up, and it is unavoidable. To be able to live a meaningful remaining time depends on the existence of technologies ... Humans can feel discomfort when the 'Robot Suit' is added to the body, as it acts as a sensor, and also as equipment to control the whole body ... I strongly felt the need of an academic system that includes a number of fields combined. I have named and established this academic system, 'CYBERNICS'... to exploit the future by a hearty science technology. That is what I am aiming for.

The AFP reports that as yet there has been no commitment by any of the agencies at work at the Fukushima site to deploy the armoured HAL: perhaps unsurprisingly as the policy of simply keeping workers out of highly radioactive areas has worked well to date, with nobody so far reported as suffering any significant radiological health consequences as a result of the damage to the plant.

The new tungsten-plated HAL could, of course, be useful in other situations than nuclear meltdowns. It would seem to be a definite step along the road to the powered, armoured combat suits worn by the space-parachuting Mobile Infantry in Heinlein's classic Starship Troopers (the film didn't include the individual drop capsules or the power armour, and was much the poorer for it). ®

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