NASA Johnson Space Center Invention Nets Top
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
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.”
developed prototypes that demonstrated it could relieve the grasp load on a
human hand for a range of tasks, eventually naming it RoboGlove.
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.”
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.
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.
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.