Roundup Reads
twitter facebook instagram pintrest reddit snapchat tumbler

The Universe — Within Our Grasp

Catherine Ragin Williams |
July 27, 2020

NASA Johnson Space Center Invention Nets Top Honor

NASA’s 2020 Commercial Invention of the Year — a technology created in collaboration with industry — was designed to not only keep low-Earth orbit and deep space within our grasp, it is poised to help a multitude of people on Earth as well. The RoboGlove, essentially a soft exoskeleton glove modeled after NASA’s humanoid robot, Robonaut, provides extra power and assistance in a variety of settings, whether for workers on assembly lines or those battling chronic diseases and recovering from injuries. The award-winning innovation, resulting from a partnership between NASA’s Johnson Space Center and General Motors, bestows the wearer an extra 15 to 20 pounds of force, or 50 pounds for shorter bursts.   

“My General Motors counterpart — Marty Linn — and I were discussing the different use cases for the Robonaut 2 hand when we realized that the technology that gave the robot its grasping capability might be able to directly assist humans,” said Ron Diftler, Robonaut project lead at Johnson at the time of RoboGlove development. Now a partnership specialist within the Exploration Technology Office, Diftler works to create new partnerships similar to the one between NASA and General Motors that spawned the RoboGlove. “We quickly recognized that this concept of a human grasp assist device had applications both in space and on Earth.”

The team developed prototypes that demonstrated it could relieve the grasp load on a human hand for a range of tasks, eventually naming it RoboGlove. 

“The prototypes performed so well that [RoboGlove] was licensed by BioServo Technologies, Sweden, which has commercialized the technology and renamed it IronHand,” Diftler said.

While the NASA invention and its commercial equivalent have not seen the vacuum of space, “there are about $1 million in orders for IronHand,” Diftler noted. “It shows that technology developed with NASA very keenly in mind also can spread around the world and help people on the ground.”

Untapped Potential

During a ground test with a high-fidelity spacesuit glove, RoboGlove demonstrated that it could potentially help spacewalking astronauts who must grip tools, handrails and large pieces of machinery to accomplish their objectives. While microgravity may allow astronauts the ability to deftly maneuver thousands of pounds with just a finger, gripping objects is more of a challenge. The pressurization of spacesuits and gloves to protect explorers works against them as they endeavor to hold tools and equipment.

“The benefits include mitigating fatigue, but the spacesuit RoboGlove also provides increased grip strength compared to a non-actuated spacesuit glove,” said Jonathan Rogers, deputy chief of the Robotic Systems Technology Branch at Johnson, who served as the project manager for RoboGlove from 2015 to 2017. “The second-generation design essentially provided power steering of a glove’s fingers to reduce the amount of effort.”

In order for the RoboGlove to make a spacewalking debut, it will need further maturation and testing on the ground; but it could be well worth the effort if it provides astronauts with a boost when confronted with daunting tasks.

In the meantime, this 2020 Commercial Invention of the Year is shouldering the burden of draining and repetitive motions and providing additional strength, when necessary, for people who need it on Earth.