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SPORTS COMMUNICATIONS - 第44回 カメの恩返し 〜悠ちゃん義肢プロジェクト〜

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二宮清純のスポーツ・ラボ(第1月曜更新) : 第44回 カメの恩返し 〜悠ちゃん義肢プロジェクト〜
投稿日時: 2013-07-01 12:00:00

 ウミガメの悠ちゃんをご存知だろうか。
 2008年6月、両前肢をサメに食いちぎられたとみられるウミガメが紀伊水道で保護された。うまく泳げず、このままでは生き延びることは、ほぼ不可能な状態だった。「悠ちゃん」と名づけられた、このウミガメに義肢メーカーや獣医師、学者らがプロジェクトチームを結成。人工的に前肢を制作し、再び泳げるようにしようとの試みが4年前から続けられている。


 悠ちゃんの義肢は既に20回以上も改良を重ねられてきた。義肢はヒレのついたジャケットを首からすっぽり甲羅部分にかぶせるかたちで装着する。ただ、水中では抵抗が大きく、泳ぐ速度が上がらなかったり、義肢が外れてしまう問題点が発生していた。また特に冬場は冷たい水中で血流が悪くなる。人工物をウミガメの体にとりつけることで血管が圧迫され、接合部分が壊死してしまう心配も取りざたされていた。

 プロジェクトチームから山本化学工業に相談があったのは、この5月だ。低抵抗で体にフィットするウェットスーツや水着素材での実績を、悠ちゃんの義肢に応用できないかとの申し出だった。
「うちの素材を使えば、薄くて水抵抗が少ないものができる。ネックになっている部分が解消できるのではないかと感じました」
 そう語る山本富造社長も検討会議に加わり、新たなコラボレーション作業がスタートした。骨代わりとなる基礎部分は川村義肢が担当し、それを覆うヒレや、体に装着するジャケットに関しては山本化学工業が受け持つ。

 まず取りかかったのはジャケットの改良だった。軽量で動きやすく、かつ水の抵抗が少ないものを制作し、悠ちゃんの体に合わせてサイズなどの微調整を繰り返した。山本化学工業ならではの工夫が施されたのが、義肢と足の付け根の接合部分だ。ここにバイオラバー素材を使用した。バイオラバーから放射される赤外線により、冷たい水の中でも体は温められ、血流の悪化を防げる。壊死のリスクを抑えることに成功したのだ。

 続いて現在、取り組んでいるのがヒレの機能アップである。よりスムーズに悠ちゃんが泳げるようになるには、どんなヒレをつくればよいか。山本化学工業ではヒレの上側には流水抵抗を限りなくゼロに近づけたウェットスーツ素材の「S.C.S.(スーパー・コンポジット・スキン)」を用い、逆に下側は抵抗のある素材にすることを考え出した。これにより、ヒレを上へ動かしやすくなり、より水をかきやすくなる。

 既にヒレの試作品は完成済。装着テストを実施し、悠ちゃんの泳ぎを見ながら、改善を重ねる意向だ。これまでウェットスーツや水着、バイオラバーやゼロポジションスポーツベルト、放射線遮蔽ウェアなど、人を対象にした製品を数々、世の中に送り出してきた山本化学工業が、動物向けのものをつくるのは初めて。興味深い取り組みにメディアも取材に訪れている。

 なぜ今回、山本化学工業はプロジェクトに協力したのか。第一の理由は長年培ってきた技術を悠ちゃんの義肢開発に役立てられること。そして、もうひとつの理由は動物相手のものづくりにおける試行錯誤が、人に対する製品にもフィードバックできるからである。
 
 悠ちゃんに対して、ジャケットの着心地やヒレの泳ぎやすさについて直接、感想を聞き、改良のヒントを探ることできない。そこで今回のプロジェクトでは学界のサポートもあり、悠ちゃんの脳波や筋肉の動きを測定することで、心地よさや動きやすさを探ろうとしている。

「人の場合、着用時の実感を聞いてコミュニケーションをとりながら製品づくりができます。ただ、それには個人差もあれば先入観もある。今回、科学的な数値に基づきながら製作することで、得られた知見を人に対する製品づくりにもプラスに活用できるのではないかと考えています」

 山本社長がそう語るように、装着時の安心感や快適性は、山本化学工業が製品開発にあたって重視するポイントのひとつだ。モットーは「顧客満足度300%を目指すこと」である。メディカルバイオラバーなど医療や健康の分野にもフィールドを広げる上で、誰もが心地よさを感じられるようブラッシュアップしていく作業は、これからもっと大切になる。悠ちゃんに対する科学的アプローチは、人の世界に応用できる可能性を秘めているのだ。

「高齢や病気などで会話が不自由な方でも、科学的に心地よさが証明できれば周囲も安心できます。介護の現場では装着型の補助ロボットも増えてきて、まさに悠ちゃんの義肢づくり同様、いかに体と一体化させ、機能性を高めるかが求められています。悠ちゃんで培った経験は、そういった分野にも生かせるはずです」

 浦島太郎に代表されるように、助けたカメが人に恩返しをする民話はいくつも伝えられている。この悠ちゃんの義肢プロジェクトが、いずれ人にも役立つイノベーションへとつながれば、それはまさに現代版「カメの恩返し」と言えるかもしれない。 
 
 山本化学工業株式会社


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