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NASA develops exoskeleton to keep astronauts healthy in space

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Project Engineer Shelley Rea demonstrates the X1 Robotic Exoskeleton.
(Photo Courtesy Robert Markowitz/NASA)
Project Engineer Shelley Rea demonstrates the X1 Robotic Exoskeleton. (Photo Courtesy Robert Markowitz/NASA)

NASA has developed a new exoskeleton that may help astronauts stay healthier in space and aid paraplegics in walking here on Earth.

NASA and the Florida Institute for Human and Machine Cognition (IHMC) of Pensacola, with the help of engineers from Oceaneering Space Systems of Houston, have jointly developed a robotic exoskeleton called X1.

The 57-pound device is a robot that a human could wear over his or her body either 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. The same technology could be used in reverse on the ground, potentially helping some 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,” Michael Gazarik, Director of NASA’s Space Technology Programme said in a statement.

“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”, Gazarik said.

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

There are also multiple adjustment points, allowing the X1 to be used in many different ways.

NASA is examining the potential for the X1 as an exercise device to improve crew health both aboard the space station and during future long-duration missions to an asteroid or Mars.

Without taking up valuable space or weight during missions, X1 could replicate common crew exercises, which are vital to keeping astronauts healthy in microgravity.

In addition, the device has the ability to measure, record and stream back in real-time data to flight controllers on Earth, giving doctors better insight into the crew’s exercise.

X1 also could provide a robotic power boost to astronauts as they work on the surface of distant planetary bodies.

Coupled with a spacesuit, X1 could provide additional force when needed during surface exploration, providing even more bang for its small bulk.

Here on Earth, IHMC is interested in developing and using X1 as an assistive walking device. Using NASA technology and walking algorithms developed at IHMC, X1 has the potential to produce high torques to allow for assisted walking over varied terrain, as well as stair climbing.

Preliminary studies by IHMC have shown X1 to be more comfortable, easier to adjust, and easier to put on than older exoskeleton devices.

(This article was published on October 12, 2012)
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