NASA isn't looking to recruit Iron Man into the astronaut corps just yet, but the space agency is working on a robotic exoskeleton that could help orbiting crews stay fit and provide options for the disabled on Earth.
The project, known as X1, grew out of a NASA-General Motors partnership that developed Robonaut, a prototype humanoid robot currently flying aboard the International Space Station.
X1 is a relatively lightweight device that is strapped on to a person's legs and around the hips, providing a powered assist to the lower body. It can be used as a resistance device for astronauts to exercise in the weightless environment of space, or could help paraplegics on Earth.
"You literally are wearing Robonaut," NASA engineer Nicolaus Radford, with the Johnson Space Center in Houston, told Discovery News. "I just want to create the Iron Man suit and this is definitely on its way to do that."
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X1's harness extends up the back and around the shoulders. It has four motorized joints at the knees and hips and six passive joints for stepping sideways, turning, pointing and flexing the feet. It is controlled via a computer worn inside a backpack.
The key difference between X1 and other exoskeletons in development is the safety factor, Radford said.
Robonaut's software had to be extremely reliable for NASA to agree to fly the droid on the station where it operates alongside the crew.
"We essentially took all of that broad technology portfolio we had created with Robonaut and we re-purposed it into the X1 device. When a user has it on, you have this sense of safety that the device isn't going to rip your leg off or something," Radford said.
Another difference is NASA's emphasis on X1 as a fitness device.
"We can have a device that can help somebody walk, but we also can have that exact same device be used on the space station to help the astronauts maintain their health and their bone density and their muscles from atrophying," Radford said.
"Robotics will be critical in our future human exploration of deep space," Michael Gazarik, director of NASA's space technology program, added in a statement.
NASA, which has spent about $1.3 million developing X1, is considering flying the device on the space station. A next-generation exoskeleton, called X2, is in the planning stages, Radford said.
That project will focus on technology and materials to make the device more comfortable and easier to wear.
"The quintessential problem in exoskeleton development today is attaching the user to the device. State-of-the-art right now is Velcro and that's just unacceptable," Radford said.
"We are working with startup companies and other people to try to figure out a more optimal and dynamic and adaptive way that the device can be on the person and transmit those loads in the musculoskeletal system. It is the perennial problem that needs to be solved for these to be really practical," he said.