Grappling with an ageing population, especially providing ways for the elderly to live independently for longer, will be one of the key social issues New Zealand faces in the future. While social services need to be revolutionised, technology - including some pretty cool robotics - will also have a role to play.

A robotic exoskeleton that helps a frail or disabled person lift things or walk around sounds pretty futuristic. But these things already exist - it's just a matter of the technology becoming more affordable and readily available.

New Zealand's Rex Bionics and Japanese manufacturer Cyberdine are just two examples of firms already in this market. Rex Bionics' robotic legs allow wheelchair-bound users to sit, stand, walk and turn with relative ease. The system is controlled via a joystick and used mainly by sufferers of degenerative diseases such as Multiple Sclerosis, or spinal injuries.

Even more impressive is Cyberdyne's Hybrid Assistive Limb (HAL), an exoskeleton suit jointly developed with Japan's Tsukuba University. The suit is designed to assist elderly people with daily tasks, including walking, although it can also help the able-bodied to lift heavier loads. HAL registers biosignals on the surface of the wearer's skin to amplify their movements and is already used in rehabilitation in a number of Japanese hospitals and nursing homes.


Robotic nurses are another popular approach. In Japan the use of robots in hospitals is growing all the time. Just one example is RIBA: the Robot for Interactive Body Assistance, which can easily lift patients in and out of beds and wheelchairs.

It's not hard to imagine a time when the elderly or disabled will be able to travel around without the need for a walking frame or wheelchair. The next-generation powered exoskeletons will no doubt be more streamlined, responsive and cost-effective to produce.

And when at home, wearers will be able to slip out of their suits and relax - safe in the knowledge that their in-house robotic nurse will be able to lift them when required, as well as prepare meals and do other simple household chores.

Frazer Noble is a lecturer with Massey University's School of Engineering & Advanced Technology.