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Robotic ‘SuperLimbs’ could help astronauts recover from falls on the moon

  • May 30, 2024
  • 2 min read
Robotic ‘SuperLimbs’ could help astronauts recover from falls on the moon

We’ve all seen images of the Apollo astronauts stumbling and falling as they walk around on the moon. However, while these lunar bloopers are amusing to most of us, MIT engineers saw it as an opportunity to innovate.

“Astronauts are physically very capable, but they can struggle on the moon, where gravity is one-sixth that of Earth’s but their inertia is still the same. Furthermore, wearing a spacesuit is a significant burden and can constrict their movements,” says Harry Asada, professor of mechanical engineering at MIT. “We want to provide a safe way for astronauts to get back on their feet if they fall.”

Asada and his team are working on a pair of wearable robotic limbs that can physically support an astronaut and even get them back on their feet after they’ve fallen. The systems, dubbed  Supernumerary Robotic Limbs or ‘SuperLimbs’ are designed to extend out from a backpack that would also house an astronaut’s life support systems and the controller and motors to power the limbs.

A physical prototype has been built along with control systems to direct the limbs based on feedback from an astronaut using it. The team then used a preliminary version on healthy subjects who also volunteered  to wear a constrictive garment, similar to an astronaut’s spacesuit. When the volunteers tried to get up from either a sitting or lying position, they found that they needed less effort when assisted by the SuperLimbs.

The MIT team hopes that SuperLimbs can be helpful to astronauts after a fall and help them conserve their energy for more crucial tasks. The design could be especially useful as NASA prepares its Artemis missions, planning to return to the moon for the first time in over half a century. Artemis also hopes to built permanent moon base, a task that would require tools and machines to assist the astronauts, including multiple extended extravehicular activities (EVAs).

Asada, Ballesteros, and their colleagues will present their design and study at the IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation (ICRA). The co-authors include MIT postdoc Sang-Yoep Lee and Kalind Carpenter of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. This research was supported, in part, by NASA.

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