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GCN : November 2012
34 GCN NOVEMBER 2012 • GCN.COM ROBOTICS IS A FIELD on the bleeding edge of technol- ogy, with new discoveries and advances being made every day. And government is on the forefront, or at least has a hand in driving, most of these innovations. This week I learned about a robot being developed jointly by NASA and the Florida Insti- tute for Human and Machine Cognition that nobody, not even my cat, could dislike. The X1 is one of the new exoskele- ton type robots that fit around the human body. Literally meaning an external skeleton, the exoskeleton s secret is that it not only can move along its various joints, but can also restrict movement. That s really important be- cause it s the formula humans use to walk and to stand. We have to be able to move our legs to go anywhere, but we also have to hold our shape to prevent falling over once we get there. The X1, once per- fected, could help wounded soldiers or those who have lost their mobility due to disease or accident, to walk again. It could also be used in therapy to help people reha- bilitating from an accident. NASA is interested in the X1 because it can make astro- nauts stronger in space. Re- member when Ripley beat up the alien queen in the movie "Aliens"? That could never have happened without her trusty exoskeleton. A robotic exoskeleton also is what Iron Man uses to fly around in. In reality, there is already a robot in space, the Robonaut 2, which resides on the Inter- national Space Station. It s not an exoskeleton, but a fully functional human-looking robot (though not to the ex- tent of Data from "Star Trek") that is controlled remotely and runs on 38 PowerPC chips and 350 sensors. The X1 owes a lot of its technology to Robonaut, though in a lot of ways it s simpler because a hu- man is actually there with the robot running things, not in a remote location. The operator can use his or her own senses to keep the X1 from walking into walls. NASA has produced a video showing a man in a wheelchair using the X1 to stand and walk across a room, and it s pretty compelling to watch. Right now, the person manipulating the X1 still must use crutches for balance, but that could change in future versions of the robot. The X1 currently has joints for leg movement, and plans are in the works to add pow- ered and controllable joints for the ankles and around the hips. That should provide much greater range of move- ment, and walking without crutches or any other aid. As the technology progresses and the X1 exoskeleton becomes smaller, it s even possible that someday people could wear these suits under their clothes and walk normally without anyone even knowing about their disability. NASA seems pretty happy with the progress so far. Mi- chael Gazarik, director of the agency s Space Technology Program, issued a statement saying, "It s exciting to see a NASA-developed technol- ogy that might one day help people with serious ambu- latory 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." I ve talked to robotics experts and almost all of them say that walking is one of the most di cult things for a robot to accomplish, which is why most have wheels or tracks instead. That s because there s a lot more going on than we realize when we step across a room: thousands of "readings" per second are made with re- spect to balance and position. Some muscles have to contract and move, others need to hold in place to prevent falling. If NASA s X1 can accom- plish all that, developing other tasks such as arm movement or turning a head could be like child s play by comparison. I for one wish the designers all the luck in the world.• NASA'S WEARABLE 'SKELETON' COULD HELP PEOPLE WALK AGAIN Once perfected, NASA's X1 exoskeleton robotic device could help wounded soldiers and accident victims regain their mobility and even walk again. BY JOHN BREEDEN II EMERGING TECH ROBERT MARKOWITZ