NASA Developing Robotic Exoskeleton
October 12, 2012

Robotic Exoskeleton Has Potential For Space And Earth Applications

April Flowers for - Your Universe Online

In the movie, Avatar, humans suit up in the Amplified Mobility Platform (AMP) suits to stomp around through Pandora's rainforest and to work in the loading bays. In The Matrix Revolutions, they used Armored Personnel Units. Whatever you call them, science fiction has been inspiring robotic exoskeletons for years, and an announcement on Thursday from NASA tells us that they might not be that far away.

NASA'S Robonaut 2, the first humanoid robot in space, someday may help astronauts stay healthier in space and aid paraplegics in walking here on Earth. Robonaut 2 is currently working with astronauts aboard the International Space Station.

NASA has teamed up with The Florida Institute for Human and Machine Cognition (IHMC) and Oceaneering Space Systems to develop a robotic exoskeleton called X1. X1 is a 57 pound device that a human could wear over his or her body to assist or inhibit leg movements.

In space, the inhibit mode would be used as an in-space exercise machine to supply resistance against leg movement. Here on Earth, the assist mode could potentially help individuals walk for the first time.

"Robotics is playing a key role aboard the International Space Station and will be critical in our future human exploration of deep space," said Michael Gazarik, director of NASA's Space Technology Program. "What's extraordinary about space technology and our work with projects like Robonaut are the unexpected possibilities space tech spinoffs may have right here on Earth. It's exciting to see a NASA-developed technology might one day help people with serious ambulatory needs to begin to walk again, or even walk for the first time. That's the sort of return on investment NASA is proud to give back to America and the world."

One would wear the X1 over the legs with a harness that reaches back and around the shoulders. X1 has 10 degrees of freedom, or joints - four motorized joints at the hips and the knees, and six passive joints that allow for sidestepping, turning and pointing, and flexing a foot. It also has multiple adjustment points to allow X1 to be used in many different ways.

X1 is still in research and development, with a primary focus on the development, evaluation and improvement of the technology. NASA sees potential for X1 to improve astronaut health as an exercise device during long term missions to the space station, or possibly Mars. X1 can replicate common crew exercises without taking up extra space or weight during a mission. These exercises are vital to keeping the crew healthy in microgravity. The device will also have the ability to measure, record and stream real-time data to flight controllers to give Earth-bound doctors better insight into the crew's exercise.

Other space applications being explored include coupling X1 with a spacesuit to provide additional force when needed during surface exploration, providing even more bang for its small bulk.

Terrestrial applications that interest IHMC include using X1 as an assistive walking device. Using NASA's technology and software developed by IHMC, X1 could possibly produce high torques to allow for assisted walking on many different types of terrain, as well as climbing stairs.

"We greatly value our collaboration with NASA," said Ken Ford, IHMC's director and CEO. "The X1's high-performance capabilities will enable IHMC to continue performing cutting-edge research in mobility assistance and expand into rehabilitation."

X1 came from technology developed for Robonaut 2 and IHMC's Mina exoskeleton and was developed in a very short timeframe. This project exoskeleton systems complements work done by other government agencies, such as the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency's (DARPA) Exoskeletons for Human Performance Augmentation Program.