When you read about robotics and human assistance devices, the inception-to-commercial-reality arrow usually points from military or space-based research back to civilian applications, say in the health industry. Infrared ear thermometers? Thank stars. Artificial hearts? Rocket-engine turbo-pumps. Scratch-resistent lenses? Astronaut helmet visors.
But with X1, a robotic augmentation riff on NASA’s space-faring Robonaut, it sounds like technology that was originally designed to help paraplegics walk could be used by NASA to make astronauts stronger as well as maintain fitness during lengthy space sorties.
According to NASA’s Johnson Space Center:
X1 was initially designed as a human assist device to allow persons with paraplegia to walk again. Strategically designed motors allow for high torque applications such as stair climbing, while multiple points of adjustment allow for a wide range of users. We are now exploring space applications for exoskeletons, such as amplifying astronaut strength, or even as exercise devices for long duration missions.
The 57-pound, ten-degrees-of-freedom X1 exoskeleton is a joint venture between NASA and the Florida Institute for Human and Machine Cognition (IHMC) that you strap to the sides of both legs like a pair of giant, flexible splints and secure to your body with a harness that runs up the back and over the shoulders. NASA says it has four motorized joints at the hips and knees and six more motor-free that allow wearers to turn, step sideways or flex their feet.
The X1 suit owes a debt to Robonaut 2, the second-gen iteration of NASA “dexterous humanoid robot” project, a 330-pound automaton harboring a whopping 350 sensors and 38 PowerPC processors that’s capable of moving four times faster and with much greater dexterity than the original 410-pound Robonaut. In February 2011, Robonaut 2 became the first humanoid robot launched into space, and currently inhabits the International Space Station.
By snapping off Robonaut’s bipedal tech and adapting it to human use, the X1 suit is able to both aid and inhibit movement, offering all sorts of possible uses, from augmenting astronaut actions in space by lending their legs extra strength (weight offloading), to helping earthbound paraplegics walk (or rehabilitating those with leg injuries), to allowing astronauts in more restrictive confines to exercise in zero-gravity.
Exoskeletal robots aren’t new — there’s the Iron Man-like Raytheon Sarcos, for instance, or Cyberdyne’s Robot Suit HAL – but NASA says IHMC studies “have shown the X1 to be more comfortable and easier to adjust and put on than their previous exoskeletons.”
And this four-plus-six-joint version is just the start: NASA says it has plans to enhance the suit’s flexibility by adding joints to other areas like the ankles and hips, extending its range of augmentable (or inhibitable) motion.
No, it doesn’t yet have magnetic “repulsor” thrusters or a clean energy “arc reactor” to deliver its get-up-and-go, but we can always hope.