(Source: Marvel Studios)
New motorized suit doubles as a workout machine

I'll admit: I'm a little bit obsessed with augmented exosuits, also known as exoskeletons.  For those unfamiliar with exactly what that is, just think of Tony Stark's Iron Man suit and you'll get the picture.  

I. NASA Joins "Iron Man" Race

Exoskeletons are rapidly advancing into the realm of reality, offering both military and medical applications.  But the best work likely lies ahead in this exciting emerging field.

The latest player on the exoskeleton scene is the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). Repurposing the kinematic advances of the Robonaut 2 project -- a humanoid like robot NASA was planning on sending on unmanned space missions -- NASA has developed an exoskeleton dubbed "X1" that doubles both as a load-bearing exosuit and a novel workout machine.

Co-designed by the Florida Institute for Human and Machine Cognition (IHMC) of Pensacola, FL (a multi-university non-profit research center) and Oceaneering Space Systems of Houston (a subsidiary of Oceaneering International, Inc. (OII), a maritime contractor), the 57-pound suit is strapped onto the legs, with supporting traps worn over the shoulders, backpack-style.

NASA X1 Exoskeleton
A female "space cadet" straps on NASA's exoskeleton. [Image Source: NASA]

The X1 is specially designed to deliver a rich array of movements for the wearer.  It features 10 degrees of freedom and four motorized joints (the hips and knees), plus six passive joints (used for sidestepping, turning and pointing, and flexing a foot).

II. Multipurpose Suit Both Load Bears and Provides Resistance Training

In workout mode, the device reverses the standard exoskeleton equation, with the motors instead resisting movement to provide resistance training.  This could be valuable to helping astronauts exercise and maintain muscle mass while in space, a place where large traditional exercise machines are problematic.

In standard assist mode, the X1 could be used on a Moon or Mars mission to assist the human space traveller in hoisting heavy boxes.  Though NASA did not explicitly mention it, the system's electric storage could likely be recharged by solar power at the landing site.

NASA has a pretty neat video of the suit in action here (complete with fun electronic groove soundtrack):

NASA Space Technology Program chief Michael Gazarik comments, "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."

III. Helping Paraplegics Walk

Back on Earth; NASA also has ambitious plans for the device -- namely, using it to assist paraplegics (those who suffer from paralysis below the waist).   NASA and the IHMC have developed advanced assisted walking algorithms capable of navigating over "varied terrain".  This could allow handicapped individuals to walk freely for the first time, even climbing up stairs like able-bodied folks.

IHMC director Ken Ford comments, "We greatly value our collaboration with NASA.  The X1's high-performance capabilities will enable IHMC to continue performing cutting-edge research in mobility assistance while expanding into the field of rehabilitation."

handicapped spot
NASA and the IHMC want to use the suit to help Paraplegics walk. [Image Source: eHow]

The Game Changing Development Program funds the NASA exoskeleton work.  The bad news is that this and other programs could be at risk if mandatory budget cuts kick in amid the partisan deadlock on the budget.

Hopefully, this novel program continues to receive the funding it deserves, stepping (with a bit of help) one step closer to helping the paralyzed walk and helping astronauts achieve superhuman load-bearing operations.

Source: NASA

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