It’s no coincidence that our most complex, versatile, and useful body part, the human hand, is also among the most prone to injury. “The human hand and forearm are a marvel of capability for its size,” said Jonathan Rogers, a mechanical design engineer at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. So, it’s no surprise that one of the biggest obstacles to creating the first robot astronaut to fly in space was building its hands.

The hands were also the first aspect of the robot to be commercialized. Factory workers around the globe are now trying out Ironhand, a robotic glove designed to help them perform repetitive tasks without fatigue or injury.

The world’s first industrial-strength robotic glove only exists because NASA and General Motors (GM) realized that space exploration and automobile manufacturing had a lot of common goals. The first was a need for robots and humans to work side-by-side, so they signed a 2006 Space Act Agreement for the construction of Robonaut 2 (R2). This was a faster, more dexterous follow-up to the earlier Robonaut prototype built by NASA and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

The partnership brought half a dozen GM engineers to Johnson, where they helped design and build the robot that flew to the International Space Station five years later and proved it could perform simple tasks alongside astronauts.

The design and construction of Robonaut 2, a cooperative effort between NASA and GM, led the two partners to follow the project with a robotic glove based on the hardware they created for the robot astronaut’s hands. (Photo: NASA)

With that work completed, the team “recognized that we could repackage the finger actuator drive train into a wearable device” that could help both astronauts and auto workers, Rogers said.

Automobile factory employees can become fatigued from performing repetitive tasks, leading to quality control problems and, worse, injuries, Rogers said. These days, partly because robots already do much of the heavy lifting, stress injuries among factory workers are more common in the hands than, for example, the lower back or shoulders.

Likewise, hand fatigue has long plagued astronauts working on the outside of spacecraft. In the vacuum of space, an astronaut’s suit, including the gloves, becomes a pressurized balloon, stiff and difficult to bend, Rogers said. So extended work in space can lead to aches and raw spots on the hands and even delaminated fingernails in worst-case scenarios.

The team understood that a glove could provide grasping strength to solve both problems. So once an R2 model was safely aboard the space station, the NASA and GM team started building robotic gloves based on the hardware in the robot’s hands and forearms.

By 2015, GM workers were trying out prototypes known as Robo-Glove. The company began looking for a commercial partner to further refine the technology and found that Robo-Glove was not the world’s first robotic grip-strengthening glove. Two years earlier, the company Bioservo Technologies of Stockholm, Sweden, had released its Soft Extra Muscle glove, intended to compensate for hand injuries.

The Stockholm-based company licensed six Robo-Glove patents from NASA and GM and got to work, with GM testing prototypes as they were built.

By 2018, other partners were testing the first release of Bioservo’s Ironhand, including Airbus, General Electric, and the French construction and infrastructure giant Eiffage. Based on feedback, the company refined its Ironhand 1.6, released in 2020. The company now has two commercial products – Ironhand, for industrial use, and Carbonhand, for medical use.

Meanwhile, after NASA’s partnership with GM ended, Rogers, now deputy chief for Johnson’s Robotic Systems Technology Branch, led a two-year effort to adapt the technology for spacesuit gloves, leading to two pending patents the agency plans to offer to Bioservo.

Johnson engineers are now building on technology from R2 and Robo-Glove with another commercial partner, an Australian natural gas company interested in deploying robots for dull, dirty, or dangerous field jobs.

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