Establishing a sustainable presence on the Moon, preparing for crewed missions to Mars, exploring the cosmos, and innovating how society travels by air requires new technologies and software. Each year, through its Inventions and Contributions Board, NASA recognizes the efforts of its engineers, software developers and collaborative partners by awarding Invention of the Year and Software of the Year awards.
NASA’s 2020 Commercial Invention of the Year – a technology created in collaboration with industry – is RoboGlove, which was developed through a partnership between NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston and General Motors.
“'Robo-Glove,' is the world’s first soft robotic muscle strengthening system for professional users. In developing the Robo-Glove, NASA set out to assist astronauts, improve the efficiency of spacewalks, and extend its capabilities in space exploration. Co-developer General Motors sought to improve the safety and effectiveness of the production operators working in its manufacturing plants. Robo-Glove in its commercial product form of “Ironhand” has far exceeded the current state of the art which includes: uncomfortable hand exoskeletons, passive grip strengthening gloves, or low strength rehabilitation gloves used by individuals who, for medical reasons, cannot create simple grasps. General Motors workers are using Ironhand on automobile assembly lines and performing well. No other currently available grasp assist glove is effective in performing these types of demanding manual assembly tasks,” acccording to the Inventions and Contributions Board.
New NASA Hand Tool
The RoboGlove is essentially a soft exoskeleton glove – inspired by NASA’s Robonaut humanoid robot – that provides a power assist to workers who operate tools for extended periods, or who operate tools that require repetitive motions, such as automobile workers on assembly lines. The glove offers 15-20 lb of extra force and, in short bursts, up to 50 lb. This allows workers to use a lighter grip for the most demanding tasks and reduces strain on muscles and ligaments.
NASA has not used the technology in space yet, but it’s being commercialized as “IronHand” by Bioservo Technologies in Sweden. “There are about $1 million in orders for IronHand,” said Ron Diftler, the previous project manager for Robonaut at Johnson when RoboGlove was created. “It shows that technology developed with NASA very keenly in mind also can spread around the world and help people on the ground.”
The benefits do not end at the assembly line. The glove can also be used for many other applications, including the construction industry, shipping warehouses, and medical and rehabilitation clinics to help people recover from injuries and assist those who battle chronic diseases.
The device also showed promise for use by NASA during a ground test with a high-fidelity spacesuit glove. Spacewalking astronauts grip tools, handrails and large pieces of machinery during the time inside their spacesuits. While microgravity allows the astronauts to move thousands of pounds with just their pinky finger, gripping objects is more difficult. Spacesuits and gloves are pressurized to survive the harsh conditions of space. While gripping the tools and equipment, astronauts must work against that pressure.
“The benefits include mitigating fatigue, but the spacesuit RoboGlove also provides increased grip strength compared to a non-actuated spacesuit glove. The second-generation design essentially provided power steering of a glove’s fingers to reduce the amount of effort,” 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. “To use RoboGlove in space, the design must be further matured and tested.”
“We are very proud of receiving this award which recognizes a lot of hard work over the last years,” said Petter Bäckgren, CEO at Bioservo. “Without the close collaboration with and the continuous feedback from our development partners, such as General Motors, we would not have been able to make Ironhand so intuitive, comfortable and ergonomic.”
About NASA’s Invention and Software of the Year Awards
NASA’s Invention of the Year and Software of the Year awards recognize the best innovations developed by the NASA team. The Inventions and Contributions Board evaluates the nominations (for the software award a panel of software experts provide the board input), and winners are selected and recommended to the award sponsors for concurrence.
For more information about the Inventions and Contributions Board, visit icb.nasa.gov/