Paralysed man to scale Alpine peak with aid of robotic legs

A PAIR of robotic limbs is to give a quadriplegic Japanese climber a bionic leg-up in the Alps later this year.

Seiji Uchida, a 43-year-old architect who was left unable to use his arms or legs after a car crash 22 years ago, plans to reach the top of Switzerland's 13,740ft Breithorn mountain, testing an invention that its designer hopes will enable thousands of disabled people to walk again.

In August, accompanied by experienced alpinist Ken Noguchi, Mr Uchida will take a cable car to within 950ft of the summit before being strapped to Mr Noguchi's back for the final push.

The hybrid assistive limb (HAL), which increases the average weight a person can carry from 100kg to 180kg, will be attached as an outer framework to the able-bodied climber's legs, allowing him to bear his companion to the top.

"I was in hospital for three years after the accident and all through the recuperative process I was inspired by a photo on the wall of the Matterhorn," said Mr Uchida.

"Little by little I built up my strength until eight years ago I was able to go to Switzerland for the first time," he said. "I had to sit by a lake at the foot of the mountain, but I decided I wanted to climb a mountain."

Mr Uchida set up the With Dreams charity to give other disabled people a chance to have experiences that would otherwise be beyond them, but it was not until three years ago, when he saw HAL on a television news programme, that he believed he could scale a Swiss mountain.

"We started research work on the initial HAL project in 1992 but we have come a long way in that time and we are hoping to release a version of the robot limb on the open market in the near future," said inventor Professor Yoshiyuki Sankai, of Tsukuba University, north of Tokyo.

"We have developed versions that work but now we must put it through a series of rigorous trials," he said. "Climbing the mountain will be the first."

Sensors attached to the surface of the skin detect faint electric signals transmitted by the brain to the limbs. The artificial limb helps the weakened human limb complete that order.

"It is a unification of the robot with a human. The muscle and the suit move simultaneously towards the same goal," Prof Sankai said.

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