People have a unique set of needs once they get into space, but a machine designed purely to give astronauts their daily exercise could help the handicapped walk and potentially much more.
Plenty of critics have challenged the value of spending billions of dollars on the exploration of space. One of the leading arguments in support has always been the broad application of engineering research and development done by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, from new materials to advanced engine designs.
NASA’s latest contribution could be a step in the direction of a real-life Iron Man suit.
Developed along with The Florida Institute for Human and Machine Cognition, the X1 robotic exoskeleton is a system designed to strap to a user’s back and legs. Weighing 57 pounds in total, the device has four motorized joints that can apply force to help or hinder a person’s movement, while still allowing substantial range of motion.
It might seem strange to think of an exoskeleton designed to hinder someone’s movement, but in the continuous free fall of Earth orbit and the low-gravity of longer-space missions it can be crucial for astronauts to keep up regular exercise to prevent atrophy in muscle and bone.
However, NASA’s engineers are generally not fond of making room on a crowded ship for bulky exercise equipment.
This new exoskeleton solves some of that problem by allowing astronauts to exercise with different amounts of resistance using only what they’re wearing.
But the utility of the X1 goes beyond just offering an easier means of exercise. Astronauts face a challenging task navigating the surface of low-gravity bodies, from the Moon to potential landings on asteroids or even Mars. The exoskeleton could offer increased support to keep astronauts on balance and also offer a bit of an extra boost to help them make the most of their decreased weight.
Walking with borrowed strength
Back on Earth, the devicehas completely different potential. Rather than helping fit, well-trained astronauts tackle difficult conditions, the exoskeleton could allow paraplegics or similarly handicapped individuals to walk without needing to provide all the effort themselves.
“Robotics is playing a key role aboard the International Space Station and will continue to be critical as we move toward human exploration of deep space,” Michael Gazarik, director of NASA’s Space Technology Program, said in a statement. “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 that might one day help people with serious ambulatory needs 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.”
IHMC has already started work on adapting the X1 for terrestrial uses, though it still requires some extensive engineering research before it will be marketable.
The New York Times reports on a similar system developed initially through military funding known as Ekso that has already started to help some people going through physical therapy.
Currently, the devices cost around $140,000 each, along with an annual service contract, but there are several companies working to develop exoskeletons for a wide range of purposes. The field includes military giants like Raytheon and the much smaller Argo Medical Technologies.
These types of exoskeletons could prove to have even further benefits once they have been proven for uses beyond rehabilitation, particularly in industries that put heavy demands on workers.
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