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NASA X1 robotic exoskeleton

NASA’s ‘Iron Man’ technology could help people walk again


As GCN’s watcher of all things in the emerging technology field, one surprising fact I discovered pretty quickly is how many advanced robots exist in our world, or soon will. Robotics is a field on the bleeding edge of technology, with new discoveries and advances made every day. And government is on the forefront, or at least has a hand in driving, most of these innovations.

Just as a quick recap, we have the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency working on the next generation AlphaDog, which is a sort of glorified pack mule, but one that could make a soldier’s life a lot easier once all the bugs (fleas?) are worked out.

Then we have the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Navy working with a company called Liquid Robotics on swimming robots to map the Arctic Ocean, a project I’ll write more about soon.

Then we have the 501 Packbot, which is used by the military as well as by state and local governments for bomb disposal and patrols. The company that makes it, iRobot, is giving it a step toward actual intelligence. Interestingly enough, iRobot is the same company that makes those little disks that zoom around the floor vacuuming up debris on their own. I’m not sure I like the idea of those things thinking for themselves, especially when mine nuzzles up near my toes. Then again, some extra smarts might give it a fighting chance against my cat, which is always plotting its demise.

This week I learned about a robot being developed jointly by NASA and the Florida Institute for Human and Machine Cognition that nobody, not even my cat, could dislike. The X1 is one of the new exoskeleton type of robots that fit around the human body. Literally meaning an external skeleton, the exoskeleton’s secret is that it not only can move along its various joints, but can also restrict movement.

That’s really important because it’s the formula humans use to walk and to stand. We have to be able to move our legs to go anywhere, but we also have to hold our shape to prevent falling over once we get there. The X1, once perfected, could help wounded soldiers or those who have lost their mobility due to disease or accident, to walk again. It could also be used in therapy to help people rehabilitating from an accident.

NASA is interested in the X1 because it can make astronauts stronger in space. Remember when Ripley beat up the alien queen in the movie “Aliens”? That could never have happened without her trusty exoskeleton. A robotic exoskeleton also is what Iron Man uses to fly around in.

In reality, there is already a robot in space, the Robonaut 2, which resides on the International Space Station. not an exoskeleton, but a fully functional human-looking robot (though not to the extent of Data from “Star Trek”) that is controlled remotely and runs on 38 PowerPC chips and 350 sensors. The X1 owes a lot of its technology to Robonaut, though in a lot of ways it’s simpler because a human is actually there with the robot running things, not in a remote location. The operator can use his or her own senses to keep the X1 from walking into walls.

NASA's video showing a man in a wheelchair using the X1 to stand up and walk across a room is pretty compelling to watch. Right now, the person manipulating the X1 still must use crutches for balance, but that could change in future versions of the robot.

The X1 currently has joints for leg movement, and plans are in the works to add powered and controllable joints for the ankles and around the hips. That should provide much greater range of movement, and walking without crutches or any other aid. As the technology gets smaller, it’s even possible that someday people could wear these suits under their clothes and walk normally without anyone even knowing about their disability.

NASA seems pretty happy with the progress so far. Michael Gazarik, director of the agency’s Space Technology Program, issued a statement saying, "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."

I’ve talked to robotics experts and almost all of them have said that walking naturally is one of the most difficult things for a robot to accomplish, which is why most robots have wheels or tracks instead. That’s because there’s a lot more going on when we step across a room than we realize: thousands of “readings” per second are made with respect to balance and position. Some muscles have to contract and move, while others need to hold in place to prevent falling down.

If NASA’s X1 can accomplish all that, developing other tasks such as arm movement or turning a head will be like child’s play by comparison. I for one wish the designers all the luck in the world, and look forward to reporting on their continued success with this most noble of projects.

Posted by John Breeden II on Oct 16, 2012 at 9:39 AM


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