We Can’t Land On Mars Without NASA’s Million-Dollar Ironman Suit

X1 Robot Suit
The X1 is worn over the legs, while a harness run up the back and around the shoulders.

Wearable robot suits have been used to help disabled people walk again and protect soldiers from injuries. Now that technology is being re-jiggered by NASA to keep astronauts in tip-top shape during their weightless bouts in space. The result: A 57-pound device called the X1 robotic skeleton. The X1 can either inhibit or support movement in the leg joints. In space, the suit would be used to help astronauts exercise. Back on Earth, it could help rehabilitate paraplegics.

The power-armoured suit, which gives regular space people “superhuman strength” is based on NASA’s Robonaut 2, the first humanoid robot to be sent to the International Space Station and designed to carry out tasks too dangerous for astronauts. 

The XI, on the other hand, will be vital to keeping astronauts healthy on long deep space missions, like landing on an asteroid or visiting Mars. It’s also smaller in size and lighter than existing exoskeletal robots, so it won’t take up much space or weight during these missions.

Between NASA and its collaborator, the Florida Institute for Human Health and Machine Cognition, an investment of $1.3 million was made to develop the X1.

We spoke to NASA’s Exoskeleton Project Engineer Roger Rovekamp via e-mail to learn more about the exoskeleton.  

Business Insider: How will the X1 be used on the International Space Station? 

Roger Rovekamp: The X1 is currently being evaluated by exercise physiologists at the NASA Johnson Space centre in order to determine its potential as an exercise device. The idea with the X1 is that, when compared to existing exercise devices currently aboard ISS, the X1 could offer similar results for a fraction of the size and weight. Such features are appealing, especially for future long duration missions to asteroids or Mars, where minimising unnecessary payload mass is critical.

BI: How is the X1 controlled; what different modes are there?

RR: The X1 is controlled with a computer located in the backpack, as well as by additional embedded controllers that talk directly to the X1’s actuators. 

The X1 has many mechanical and electrical components. Major components include actuators at the hips and knees, motor drivers, a computer, safety devices, and the several components that make up the mechanical structure.

We are exploring a number of different modes for multiple applications. These modes include zero force mode for able bodied users, position control mode for disabled users, and exercise modes that allow for isometric and isokinetic exercises.

BI: How does the X1 get its power?

RR: The X1 has two options for power: It can accept power from an external power source such as a power supply or, in the case of the International Space Station, from the space station’s main power supply. We are also integrating batteries and even plan to explore regenerative power methods. 

BI: There are several companies working on wearable robots (Raytheon, Ekso Bionics, Argo Medical Technologies), how is NASA’s suit different?

RR: NASA’s suit uses proven technologies developed during the R2 program such as force sensing actuation and safety systems developed especially for use aboard ISS. This makes the X1 not only uniquely capable in terms of performance compared to existing technologies, but also one of the safest lower extremity exoskeletons currently in use. 

BI: How long until the suit is used in space? 

RR: The X1 is undergoing evaluations to determine what modifications must be made before it can be used as an exercise device aboard ISS. The X1 in its current configuration is set up primarily as an assisted walking device. This means that some alterations might need to be made to make it more specific to exercise

Watch the skeleton in action below: 

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