NASA exoskeleton to give astronauts a boost

A robotic exoskeleton developed as a spin-off from NASA’s Robonaut 2 project could help astronauts stay healthier in space, and paraplegics walk.

Robonaut 2 is the first humanoid robot in space, currently aboard the International Space Station.

And the technologies used in its design have now led to the development of X1, a 57-pound robotic exoskeleton that a human could wear over his or her body to assist or inhibit movement in leg joints.

In the inhibit mode, the robotic device would be used as an in-space exercise machine to supply resistance against leg movement. However, the same technology could be used in reverse on the ground, potentially helping some individuals walk for the first time.

It could also provide a robotic power boost to astronauts as they work on the surface of distant planetary bodies.

“Robotics is playing a key role aboard the International Space Station and will be critical in our future human exploration of deep space,” says 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.”

Worn over the legs with a harness that reaches up the back and around the shoulders, X1 has 10 joints – four motorized joints at the hips and the knees, and six passive joints that allow for sidestepping, turning, pointing and flexing a foot.

Preliminary studies, says NASA, have shown X1 to be more comfortable, easier to adjust, and easier to put on than older exoskeleton devices. Researchers plan on improving on the design, adding more active joints to areas such as the ankle and hip.