The X1 robotic exoskeleton – the latest robotic space technology derivative of Nasa’s Robonaut 2 – may someday help astronauts stay healthier in space, as well as assist paraplegics in walking here on Earth.
X1 – a 26-kg robotic device that humans could wear over their bodies either to aid or inhibit mobility in leg joints – was developed by Nasa and The Florida Institute for Human and Machine Cognition (IHMC), with the help of engineers from Oceaneering Space Systems of Houston.
Astronauts would use the X1 as an exercise device 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.
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 also are multiple adjustment points, allowing the X1 to be used in many different ways.
X1 currently is in a research and development phase, where the primary focus is design, evaluation and improvement of the technology.
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 feedback on the impact of the crew’s exercise regimen.
As the technology matures, 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, improving the ability to walk in a reduced gravity environment, providing even more bang for its small bulk.
Here on Earth, IHMC is interested in developing and using X1 as an assistive walking device. By combining 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 using X1 for this purpose have already started at IHMC.