NASA’s Ironhand is a game-changer for ISS astronauts and factory workers on Earth; here’s how
Workers who work in a factory are usually familiar with the problem of fatigue and injury, with their hands being the most prone to said problems. Astronauts living aboard the International Space Station (ISS) also face similar risks as they sometimes have to perform operations outside the laboratory during spacewalks. In an effort to overcome hand fatigue and potential injuries, NASA, in partnership with General Motors (GM), developed the world’s first industrial-strength robotic glove called the “Ironhand”.
According to NASA, the idea for a robotic hand resulted from the construction of Robonaut 2 (R2), which was developed under the 2006 Space Act agreement with GM and flew to the ISS in 2011 to help astronauts with minor tasks.
How is Ironhand a game changer?
The Ironhand, as mentioned above, was developed to save factory workers and astronauts from hand fatigue, which could lead to injury later on. The idea for the robotic glove was explained by Jonathan Rogers, a mechanical design engineer at NASA’s Johnson Space Center. Once Robonaut 2 launched to the ISS, the engineering team realized they could use the same technology to turn it into a wearable device, the gloves in this case.
(Jonathan Rogers, now deputy head of the Robotic Systems Technology Branch at the Johnson Space Center, worked with a team of Johnson and GM engineers to build Robo-Glove, a robotic glove that could help manufacturing workers and astronauts (Image: NASA)
The argument was that performing repetitive tasks can lead to quality control issues. Rogers said that since robots already perform heavy lifting tasks in factories, workers are more prone to hand injuries than shoulder or lower back injuries. For astronauts too, performing activities during spacewalk hours can lead to sore and raw spots on their hands and even loose fingernails as their spacesuits, including gloves, become a balloon under pressure. What this glove does is it provides grip strength that has solved problems in both worlds. So far, there are many versions of the robotic gloves thanks to partners such as General Motors and the Swedish company Bioservo Technologies that NASA has owned until now.
Now that NASA’s partnership with GM is over, it has partnered with an Australian natural gas company interested in deploying robots for boring, dirty or dangerous field work using R2 and Robo-glove technology. “It’s a huge win that came out of the glove. Any technology NASA comes up with that benefits society as a whole is a return on taxpayers’ investment,” Rogers said in a statement.