In the Hollywood blockbuster Aliens, Sigourney Weaver battles the alien queen in a mechanized suit akin to a wearable forklift. Director James Cameron resurrected the idea for Avatar some 23 years later.
Science fiction, right? Maybe not for much longer.
Mitsui & Co., best known among investors as Japan's top oil and iron-ore trader, says it's on the cusp of developing a device very similar to the one worn by Weaver.
First up, the commodities trader and its partners have built a wearable suit—a backpack fitted with belts and leg supports—that enhances a user's ability to lift and move heavy objects. The idea is that when worn by farmers, or at nursing homes or construction sites, strength is enhanced.
The device, known as the Assist Suit AWN-03, was developed at ActiveLink, Panasonic Corp.'s robot-development unit. Weighing in at 6 kilograms (13.2 pounds), the suit allows the wearer to lift as much as 15 kilograms without stressing the lower back, according to Mitsui, which demonstrated the outfit to media at its Tokyo headquarters on Aug. 14.
Such a machine is tailor-made for Japan, where labor shortages and a shrinking and aging population are already causing construction delays, says the trading house.
But the Assist Suit is just a first step. In two years, Mitsui and its partners aim to release the next iteration, complete with mechanical arms and legs. Further out, future versions could start to take on Aliens-like proportions.
"What we have in mind is the Aliens power loader," says Tomoya Tsutsumi, an official at Mitsui's construction and industrial machinery division.
General contractor Kajima Corp. and Yamato Holdings Co., which offers door-to-door parcel delivery services, are among dozens of companies planning to try the technology, according to Tsutsumi. The target is to sell 1,000 units in the initial year after the Assist Suit’s release.
"Young workers tend to want to work in a more comfortable environment so businesses are having trouble finding enough workers when labor conditions are harsh," Tsutsumi said.