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Robotic Exoskeletons Could Change Medicine and Science

Written By Brian Hicks

Posted October 19, 2012

Paraplegics may one day invite comparisons to Robert Downey Jr.’s brash Ironman character if NASA researchers can successfully develop a powered armor suit.

The X1 suit, 57 pounds in weight, was designed to help astronauts stay healthy on long flights to Mars. It can either facilitate or inhibit leg joint movement.

When inhibiting, it can offer much-needed resistance for astronauts in space, providing a way to exercise. Alternately, it can work with the person wearing it, enabling added stability and motion. It’s this last mode that could transform the lives of Earthbound paraplegics.

Of course, there are even more applications: rehabilitative exercise, posture and gait enhancement, and redistributed weight management.

This system isn’t the first such exoskeleton; Raytheon (NYSE: RTN) has been developing one, designed to enhance the performance of soldiers in the military, for some years.

A study by the Florida Institute for Human and Machine Cognition, however, has shown that the X1 is, by far, more comfortable, adjustable, and easier to wear and use for longer periods.

The exoskeleton is presently in R&D limbo, and future developments might see it gain additional joints in the ankle and hip regions, as well as generally enhanced flexibility.

But one thing is for sure: technologies like this one by NASA or Raytheon’s project are sure to alter the limits of humanity.