If even the thought of mounting a long staircase makes your knees ache, help could be on the way in the form of a supportive lower-body exoskeleton recently introduced by Honda Motor Co., Ltd. The company's walking assist device is designed to reduce the load on leg muscles and joints (in the hip, knees, and ankles) by supporting a portion of the wearer's bodyweight. It acts as an exoskeleton in that it straps over the wearer's clothes and provides two artificial legs that fit alongside the wearer's own legs.

The exoskeleton, which comes in small, medium and large sizes, weighs about 14.3 pounds (6.5 kilograms). The user secures it with a belt around the hip and thigh, then straps into a pair of shoes connected to it. A seat fits between the wearer's legs like a mini saddle. The device is powered by a lithium ion battery that lasts about two hours between charges, as long as the wearer isn't walking faster than 2.8 miles per hour (4.5 kilometers per hour).

The Fundamental Technology Research Center of Honda R&D Co., Ltd. began designing the walking assist device in 1999, with the goal of improving the mobility of people capable of walking on their own, although with some difficulty, particularly the elderly. It's unclear the size of that market, and Honda has not released pricing information. The company introduced the technology in April at the International Trade Fair on Barrier Free Equipments & Rehabilitation for the Elderly & the Disabled (BARRIER FREE 2008) in Osaka. According to Honda's Web site, the product has now "entered into the feasibility stage."

The company used the same approach to develop the walking assist device as it did to create the gait of its ASIMO humanoid robot—which walks in a bit of a crouch, as if trying to avoid hitting its head against something.

Honda has video of the walking assist device in action as does BBC News.

Exoskeleton research is being done elsewhere as well. Scientists at M.I.T. Media Lab's Biomechatronics Group have, with funding from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), developed an exoskeleton that promises to not only lessen the load of weary travelers but could give rise to robotic limbs for amputees. Japan's CYBERDYNE, Inc., has taken this a step further by developing a "real-life Iron Man" exoskeleton that supports the entire body, augmenting one's strength or doing the work of ailing (or missing) limbs.

(Image courtesy of Honda)