A robotic exoskeleton developed as a spin-off from NASA’s Robonaut 2 project could help astronauts stay healthier in space.
NASA, along with other research groups, has reportedly developed a robotic suit that can be worn in outer space or on earth. The suit, which has been named X1, has been created to act as an exercise machine for astronauts by increasing leg resistance to keep muscles strong in orbit. Here on earth, the researchers have proposed that the suit could be used to help paraplegic patients stand and walk.
Nic Radford, who used to work on NASA’s exoskeleton research and now studies humanoid robots, confirmed that it is, indeed, the exact same suit that can be used for both goals. He said the X1 suit is just one example of exciting technological developments from NASA’s Robonaut Project, which sent a robot to help out at the International Space Station last year.
The X1 suit is made of technology from many of the Robonaut Project studies. The suit in particular is made of straps and a harness that go around the wearer’s arms and chest. Separate shells that contain 10 joints support the legs. These include four motorized joints for the hips and knees and six nonmoterized joints that facilitate stepping side to side, turning, and flexing the feet.
The suit was developed to help combat bone and muscle loss that astronauts experience while traveling in low gravity. In order to maintain proper bone and muscle structure, astronauts on long journeys in space must exercise two to three hours a day.
Radford said the X1 would be especially helpful during future long-term missions to other planets, including Mars. In addition, traveling space shuttles would not be able to carry the necessary extensive exercise equipment like the International Space Station can. According to Radford, astronauts aboard the Space Station work out on many pieces of essential exercise equipment. “Literally 2,000 pounds of hardware,” he told TechNewsDaily. “Something like that is not really going to be useful to a mission to Mars, where you have a small capsule.” The X1 suit weighs only 57 pounds.
According to Radford, the next step in the development of the suit is to negotiate sending it up to the International Space Station to test it out. He expects these negotiations to last nearly two years.
“I dream of the day when I can get people out of wheelchairs,” Radford said. “I can relate on a very small level,” he added. He recently had to have his ankle replaced and still walks with a limp. “It’s been a difficult journey,” he said.
In addition to sending the suit to space, NASA is working closely with the Florida Institute for Human and Machine Cognition to develop the suit for paraplegic patients who cannot walk due to accidents, strokes, and other afflictions. Radford said the X1, which he insists is very safe, is currently being tested on a small group of paraplegics. “I dream of the day when I can get people out of wheelchairs,” he said.
NASA’s plans for the X1 suit do not stop there, however. They plan on eventually developing the suit to allow astronauts to walk on the surface of other planets easier. They also expect to tweak the current device so it can balance by itself, making walking and standing much easier for paraplegic patients.