Japanese researchers build robotic tail to keep elderly upright

VIDEO: REUTERS

TOKYO (REUTERS) - Millions of years after the ancestors of humans evolved to lose their tails, a research team at Japan's Keio University have built a robotic one they say could help unsteady elderly people keep their balance.

Dubbed Arque, the grey 1m-long device mimics tails such as those cheetahs and other animals use to keep their balance while running and climbing, according to the Keio team.

"The tail keeps balance like a pendulum," said Mr Junichi Nabeshima, a graduate student and researcher at the university's Embodied Media Project, displaying the robotic tail attached to his waist with a harness.

"When a human tilts their body one way, the tail moves in the opposite direction."

As Japan greys, it is leading the industrial world in seeking ways to keep its ageing population mobile and productive.

While other nations have turned to immigrant workers to replenish a shrinking workforce, less-welcoming Japan has focused more on a technological solution.

The robotic tail, which uses four artificial muscles and compressed air to move in eight directions, will remain in the laboratory for now, however, as researchers look for ways to make it more flexible, Mr Nabeshima said.

Apart from helping the elderly get around, the team is also looking at industrial applications for the artificial appendage, such as a balance aid for warehouse workers carrying heavy loads.

"I think it would be nice to incorporate this further developed prosthetic tail into daily life, when one seeks a little more help balancing," Mr Nabeshima said.