IF CALIFORNIANS ARE LUCKY, THE HUGE EARTHQUAKE that's due any day now will hold off a while longer--until an international team of researchers can finish developing a way to give rescue workers the strength of the Bionic Man. The idea is to combine a titanium suit of armor with robotics technology, especially at the elbows, knees, and mther joints. There, battery-powered motors would provide five times the strength of human muscles.
Sensors and a built-in computer would track the wearer's movements and instantly cause the robosuit to mimic those movements. The technology is similar to that now used with virtual-reality gloves. But instead of just sticking your hand in a remote-control mechanism, you would climb completely inside the robot. After donning the robotic armor, tomorrow's knights could ride to the rescue in the aftermath of a tornado, say, and help free people trapped under heavy debris.
Head tailor for the robosuit is Kazuo Yamafuji, a professor at the University of Electro-Communications in Tokyo. He hopes to have a prototype in two years, with help from Sergei Ulyanov of the Russian Academy of Sciences and Maria Feng, an assistant professor of civil engineering at the University of California at Irvine. They plan to integrate robotics technology from several Japanese companies, Russia's space program, and the U.S. Defense Dept. Two Japanese construction companies, Takenaka Corp. and Shimizu Corp., are providing the initial funding.