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Japanese researchers want to give granny a robotic monkey tail

Device could be used to help elderly people maintain balance, they say

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The year is 2030.

You’ve arrived at your elderly mother’s home to pay her a visit with your chubby toddler in tow. After several minutes of watching the giggling tot crawl across the carpet, your mom decides she can’t wait any longer — she needs to feel the squishy ball of human jello in her arms.

As she bends over at the waist, her arms outstretched, you panic, suddenly remembering that she has a bad back. Just then, as her body appears ready to topple forward, a mechanical appendage uncoils from beneath her dress and stiffens behind her like a wooden plank, steadying her from a fall.

You quickly relax, wondering how you could’ve been so forgetful.

Your mother has a tail.

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Though this scenario is hypothetical, it’s not exactly far-fetched. Japanese researchers at Keio University have unveiled a robotic tail that has been designed to be worn by elderly people who struggle to maintain their balance, according to Reuters.

Researchers told the wire service that the thick, one-meter-long device, which is worn using a harness, functions the same way a monkey or a cheetah’s tail does, by providing its owner with a counterbalance during demanding movements. Animals also use tails to signal danger (deer), move in the water (fish), communicate aggression (beaver) or function as a poison-filled weapon (scorpion), but the current iteration of the Japanese tail appears to be devoid of deadly serums.

“The tail keeps balance like a pendulum,” Junichi Nabeshima, a graduate student and researcher at the university’s Embodied Media Project, told Reuters.

“When a human tilts their body one way, the tail moves in the opposite direction,” he added.

A research team at Japan’s Keio University has built a robotic tail that it says could help unsteady elderly people keep their balance. (Video: Reuters)

It should come as no surprise that a robotic tail geared toward the elderly originated in Japan. In addition to embracing robotics, the nation’s population is rapidly aging, according to the Los Angeles Times, which notes that about 25 percent of Japanese people are at least 65. (In the United States, that number is about 16 percent.) An aging populace, combined with a worker shortage, has led to a flurry of robotic designs aimed at assisting older people.

Design that imitates biology is known as “biomimicry.” Other examples include this backpack inspired by an armadillo’s shell and a synthetic adhesive that was inspired by geckos and is strong enough to allow people to scale glass walls.

CNN reported that the mechanical tail project — called Arque — is about a year old. Initial designs mimicked feline tails but proved to be too light to support the user’s weight, the outlet reported. Video reveals that the latest version, which is more robust and was inspired by sea horse tails, sits near the wearer’s lower back and adjusts seconds after the individual leans forward or bends to the side.

When the wearer bends to the left or right, the tail curls the opposite way. When the wearer bends forward, the tail balances from behind.

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Researchers told CNN that the device needs to be at least 5 percent of the wearer’s body weight to be effective. Using four artificial muscles and compressed air, the tail is capable of moving in eight directions, Reuters reported.

Though the experimental device is still being refined, researchers said they don’t envision its being limited to the elderly. Other applications could include helping warehouse workers carry heavy objects or adding a sense of realism to virtual reality.

“I think it would be nice to incorporate this further developed prosthetic tail into daily life, when one seeks a little more help balancing,” Nabeshima told Reuters.

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