Robonaut, a human-like robot designed by NASA and General Motors, which was developed to serve astronauts in space, has been on the International Space Station since February 2011. Researchers have tested the robot’s ability to perform dull or dangerous tasks that free up human crew time and energy.
During its development, it inspired many other uses, including the X1, an exoskeleton that could help astronauts remain healthy in space. On Earth, it could be used to help restore limb motion for those affected by paraplegia or stroke. To create X1, NASA partnered with the Florida Institute for Human and Machine Cognition, which had already developed a lower-extremity exoskeleton to assist those with paraplegia.
The device, worn over the legs with a harness over the back and around the shoulders, has motorized joints at the hips and the knees and passive joints for sidestepping, turning and pointing, and foot flexing. Someone in a wheelchair can put on the device, and its sensor technology provides useful data on its function.
The exoskeleton can also inhibit movement, acting as a resistance exercise device for astronauts on long missions, or a patient undergoing rehabilitative therapy. X1 can also function as a dynamometer, a device that measures force or torque to quantify changes in muscle strength.
Another Robonaut spin-off is RoboGlove, a glove with flexible tendons, a tendon drive system, and sensors that measure the grasping force applied by the wearer. The glove can also either assist or resist movement.
A third spin-off applies the technology to telemedicine. In tests with the Methodist Hospital in Houston, operators guided by a physician were able to use Robonaut to conduct ultrasound-guided venous access, or insertion of a needle into a vein. Someday, it may be possible to use the robot to conduct medical procedures on the space station under remote supervision of a doctor.