When NASA isn’t landing explorer robots on Mars or executing elaborate retirements for old space shuttles through the streets of L.A., the space agency is hard at work on technology that could lift paraplegics out of their wheelchairs and get them walking here on Earth.
The agency’s X1 Robotic Exoskeleton is a two-fold achievement: It gives astronauts a way to exercise their limbs in zero gravity, and it can help impaired people attain upright mobility. It’s based on NASA’s Robonaut 2, the first humanoid robot in space that is currently helping astronauts gauge temperatures and air flow around the International Space Station.
In an announcement of the exoskeleton prototype, NASA compares it to Iron Man’s iconic battle suit — minus the guns, armor and flight capabilities. To my eyes, it bears more resemblance in form and function to the body harness that Peter Weyland climbs into in the movie Prometheus. Or maybe the M.A.N.T.I.S. suit from the 1990s TV show of the same name, which transforms a wheelchair-bound scientist into a Batman-esque avenger with super strength. (M.A.N.T.I.S. stands for Mechanically Automated Neuro Transmitter Interactive System.) It’s already undergoing trial runs as a mechanized prosthetic for paraplegics.
The X1 is the latest rendition of powered exoskeletons, which have taken various incarnations dating back as far as 1890, when a Russian engineer installed compressed gas cartridges in a lower-body apparatus to assist basic mobility. The newer models, developed by technicians at Honda, MIT and Lockheed Martin (to name a few of the main exoskeleton innovators) are mainly geared towards assisting soldiers with carrying heavy things on tricky terrain.
The 57-pound X1 body bracket evolved from a collaboration between NASA, the Florida Institute for Human and Machine Cognition, and Oceaneering Space Systems in Houston.
It sports 4 motorized joints at the device’s hips and knees and 6 passive joints that allow its wearer to sidestep, turn, pivot and flex their foot. Together, the 10 joints provide 10 degrees of motion freedom, which would perhaps make walking in the X1 awkward but not impossible.
In spite of the potential the X1 offers paralyzed people, it’s not going into mass production anytime soon. At the moment, NASA is focused on realizing its full potential as a strap-on exercise machine for astronauts on long space trips. After all, what good is catapulting explorers to far-away planets if their leg muscles are atrophied by the time they arrive?
It could also give astronauts some extra ambulatory force in reduced gravity environments. Climbing tall space mountains or carrying loads of exciting new rock samples, for example, would be much easier with an X1 strapped to your suit. Those kinds of tests are already going on at the Florida institute.