Robotic joints will make future spacesuits more comfortable

Texas A&M University engineers led by Ana Diaz Artiles are developing soft

robots. It will make future SmartSuit planetary exploration suits safer, more comfortable and energy efficient for astronauts.

Today, astronauts have a choice of two typessuits. One of these is a group of flight suits that are designed to protect crews from accidental depressurization during takeoff and re-entry. The other is Russian and American full-pressure suits, which have not changed since the early 1980s.

The problem is that they are not very comfortable.One reason is that space suits must contain air with sufficient pressure. But it turns the suit into a starfish-shaped balloon that's as hard to bend as a car tire. To overcome this, the joints of the suit consist of a series of bellows with a constant volume. When these annular structures flex, air moves from one side to the other, allowing the joint to flex.

SmartSuit infographic.
Photo: Texas A&M University

The idea behind the Texas A&M team is toreplace those bellows with soft robotic actuators that do most of the work, hold the joint in position, and allow the suit to sit more comfortably.

Researchers are currently working on a prototyperobotic knee and simulate the mobility of a standard suit and a naked body. They found that such drives could save the amount of calories burned during a mission to Mars and allow astronauts to work with less sweat. The scientists' ultimate goal is to integrate these soft robotic actuators into a self-healing suit with built-in sensors.

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