Honda Walking Assist devices (2009) CAR review

If you thought yesterday’s CAR test of Honda’s U3-X electric unicycle was weird, wait until you here about these two ‘walking assist’ devices. Since 1999 Honda has been researching and developing walking assist devices for people with leg problems, and CAR has just tested two such contraptions. Read on for our full review.

So what are these new Honda walking assist systems?
The first – and more simplistic – device is (to use its full name) Honda’s Walking Assist Device with Stride Management System. (Let’s call it Stride Assist.) It’s designed to help people with leg problems, mainly Japan’s OAP 65+ population – which will make up a fifth of the populace next year, and 35% by 2050 – but it can also help those rehabilitating after accidents.

There are three parts to the device. The first is a belt, with adjustable straps at the front, and a solid section at the rear that runs from one hip, around your back, to the other hip. The solid section also houses the battery pack and computer control, which nestles in the small of your back, while a small motor hangs down from the belt on either hip. And to accommodate big Westerners, and those with childbearing hips, Honda has also developed three different size belts, with either 312, 342 or 372mm of space between the motors.

Once the belt is in place, a thin frame is then clipped into the bottom of each motor. At the bottom of each frame are two pads, which hang just above your knee. One is placed on your hamstring and the other on your quad, and then they’re secured in place.

Being strapped in by Honda’s engineers makes you feel like Iron Man getting dressed, but once you’ve actually adjusted all the straps for yourself, it takes less than 10 seconds to put the Stride Assist system on. The whole thing, at least in 342mm size, weighs just 2.8kg, and with the lithium-ion batteries fully charged, there’s two hours’ charge if you walk at around 3mph.

And then?
Then you press the ‘on’ button on each motor and set off. The torque of the electric motor is sent through the thigh frames to your legs, so when you take a step forward your leg is helped from behind, and on the second part of the stride the pad on your quad pushes your leg back. Sensors on the inside of the motors detect the angle of your hips and decide how the timing and how much assistance you need.

At first you walk a little like Robocop, awkwardly stepping forward, but you soon start to adjust to the motor’s inputs. It helps you up stairs too, but not down - so you don’t fall, in theory. But the biggest difference you notice is when you take Stride Assist off and suddenly feel how heavy your legs are, and what an effort it takes to walk.

So far Honda has trialled Stride Assist in care homes, rehabilitation centres and hospitals. Honda found that when its patients (average age 78) used the device twice a week for three months it lengthened their stride and thus walking speed. And when test subjects were made to walk up hills, their heart rate was on average 20bpm lower with Stride Assist.

By Ben Pulman


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