NASA's X1 Exoskeletal Framework
NASA have unveiled their prototype X1 exoskeletal frame and trainer device. Unlike most exoskeletons, the key feature of this exceedingly bulky one, is that it can be used for training, just as well as enhanced walking.
t weighs in at 57 pounds (25.8 kg) placing it on the heavier end of the exoskeletal rig spectrum. Developed in conjunction with the Florida Institute for Human and Machine Cognition (IHMC), and the engineering knowledge of Oceaneering Space Systems of Houston , it is designed to both enhance and inhibit natural motion.
This curious mix of abilities derives from its dual role as both a strength aid, assisting astronauts in the zero gravity environment of orbit, and as a training aid by simulating heavier gravity environments directly.
In other words, a primary purpose of this particular exoskeleton is to encase the wearer's limbs so that it can apply pressure to all joints and make movement far more difficult, not less. In training this would enable the astronaut to feel what it would be like to walk on a heavier gravity world. In space, the same difficulty of movement would be excellent as an exercise aid to stop zero gravity muscle atrophy, where the muscles of the body are not pulling against gravity any more, and slowly atrophy from prolonged disuse.
In other words, the X1 would extend the physical health of the astronaut, if used as part of an exercise regimen for a few hours each day, by compensating for the lack of stress on the muscles, and forcing them to work much harder. This means a shorter convalescence period back on Earth, rebuilding muscles that have atrophied far less than would otherwise be the case.
X1 also then has applications for disabled individuals on Earth, as an alternative to traditional weight training, in attempting to build up weak muscles. Because it works on all joints of the limb at once, it is far superior to any system of attached weights, albeit far more expensive.
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 motorized 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, so the X1 can be modified to suit the task at hand.
Going back to the core of an exoskeletal frame, it is just as useful at enhancing movement as it is at restricting it. Enhancing natural motion by giving a mechanised boost to the power of organic muscles, and enabling the individual to move heavier objects and move for long periods without tiring, is of course exactly what exoskeletal rigs were first designed for, and X1 has that capability in spades.
It has very similar capabilities to NASA's IHMC's Mina exoskeletal rig, as Mina was used as a basis for it's enhancement capabilities. As such, it is only logical that development partner IHMC is interested in developing and using X1 as an assistive walking device. Not as advanced as the HAL 5, and similar rigs, the current generation uses intelligent algorithms to discern the terrain it is walking over and adapt accordingly. IHMC were unwilling to give details of the capabilities of these algorithms at this time, however their terrain studies are still in the early stages.
Back in space applications, one of NASA's key goals with the X1 has been the integration of the device with a standard space suit. So, an astronaut on a space walk can slip into a pre-adjusted X1 without removing the suit, making the exoskeleton ideal for high-mass lifting outside of atmosphere such as substantial repairs whilst in orbit.
Researchers from all parties plan on improving on the X1 design, adding more active joints to areas such as the ankle and hip, which will, in turn, increase the potential uses for the rig.
Robonaut 2 (base form used in X1)