For paraplegics looking to gain mobility, NASA’s X1 robotic exoskeleton could be a real-life superhero suit. Designed to help astronauts maintain muscle health in space, the 57-pound device can either assist or inhibit movement in the joints of the leg. But the X1, which NASA compares to the powered armor favored by comic-book crime-fighter Iron Man, has potential applications on Earth, as well, including rehabilitation, gait modification, and offloading large amounts of weight from the wearer.
I AM IRON MAN
The X1 is a joint project by NASA and The Florida Institute for Human and Machine Cognition, with help from engineers from Oceaneering Space Systems in Houston. Worn in microgravity, the suit can serve as an exercise device aboard the space station or during a future mission to Mars without taking up too much space or weight.
Worn in microgravity, the suit can serve as an exercise device aboard the space station and during a future mission to Mars.
The device features 10 degrees of freedom—or joints—with multiple adjustment points that allow it to be used in myriad ways. Besides its ability to replicate common leg exercises, including sidestepping, turning and pointing, and flexing, which are crucial for avoiding muscle atrophy, the X1 also boasts the ability to measure, record, and stream the crew’s vital statistics to flight controllers on Earth.
Coupled with a spacesuit, the X1 could even provide a robotic “power boost” to astronauts working on the surface of distant planetary bodies by improving the ability to walk in a reduced gravity environment.
On land, IHMC is investigating the use of the X1 as an assistive walking device across varied terrain and even stairs. “Robotics is playing a key role aboard the International Space Station and will continue to be critical as we move toward human exploration of deep space,” Michael Gazarik, director of NASA’s Space Technology Program, says. “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.”