Robotic exoskeleton could help paraplegics and astronauts

The same technology may one day soon help paraplegics walk on Earth while simultaneously assist astronauts venturing into the vastness of space.

The X1 Robotic Exoskeleton is the product of a joint venture between NASA, the Florida Institute for Human and Machine Cognition (FIHMC) and Oceaneering Space Systems of Houston, Texas. The suit borrows design elements from NASA's Robonaut 2 project, a more than 300-pound humanoid robot sporting 350 sensors currently used on the International Space Station.

The idea behind the X1's space applications, according to NASA's website, is to augment an astronaut's movements by increasing an individual's strength in zero gravity. The suit, likened to the Marvel Comics superhero Iron Man, can both assist and inhibit movement, even allowing one to exercise during long missions in space. It doesn't, however, come with fancy repulsor rays … yet.

The X1 weighs 57 pounds and is worn over the legs with a harness that wraps around the shoulders. Through a total of 10 joints, four of which are motorized, anyone wearing the suit can move forward, backward, laterally, flex their feet and much more.

"What's extraordinary about space technology and our work with projects like Robonaut are the unexpected possibilities space tech spinoffs may have right here on Earth," said Michael Gazarik, director of NASA's Space Technology Program. "It's exciting to see a NASA-developed technology that might one day help people with serious ambulatory needs begin to walk again, or even walk for the first time. That's the sort of return on investment NASA is proud to give back to America and the world."

While still in the research and development phase, the X1 Robotic Exoskeleton is an example of the innovative spirit that may eventually allow paraplegics to walk and assist astronauts in their exploration of space.

As cutting-edge methods of joining dissimilar metals and manufacturing sensors continue to evolve, the weight of such suits could be drastically reduced while their performance only gets better. In this case, not even the sky is the limit.

Advances in robotics technology could save U.S. lives, help catch bomb-makers

Improvised explosive devices (IEDs) are merciless weapons that threaten the lives of U.S. military personnel stationed in Afghanistan on a daily basis.

In 2011, camera crews from technology and entertainment TV network G4 followed a Navy Explosive Ordinance Disposal (EOD) unit as they risked their lives to find and disarm hidden bombs meant to kill their fellow servicemen and women.

G4 aired a documentary series titled "Bomb Patrol Afghanistan" to reveal just how heroic the individuals in this unit are and what men and women serving in that area face day-in and day-out. Lieutenant Brad Penley perhaps summed up the situation best.

"We're going out there against something that doesn't have a personality, a soul, and it wants to kill you."

According to the show, enemy forces plant about 15,000 IEDs every year and they are the number one killer of U.S. troops in Afghanistan. The members of the Navy's EOD unit use robots operated via modified video game controllers to either disarm or safely detonate explosive devices. Disarming and recovering IEDs is ideal because their components could provide valuable evidence that eventually leads to the bomb-makers.

Unfortunately, the robots they must use essentially have grip claws with a noticeable lack of dexterity for handling explosives. Research being done at Sandia National Laboratories, however, could change all that. Scientists have built what they call the "Sandia Hand" – a robotic device with the flexibility and control needed to safely disarm IEDs rather than detonate them.

The hand has four fingers that attach magnetically and can easily be replaced with tools like screwdrivers, flashlights and cameras. Sandia's design allows the robot to pick up and easily manipulate large objects as well as items as small as a door key – much the same way a human hand would.

Thanks to innovative methods of joining dissimilar metals and state-of-the-art sensors, the Sandia Hand and similar devices could drastically improve the efficiency of bomb disposal units in the U.S. and abroad. Not only will evidence recovery and crime prevention improve, but countless lives will be saved.

Scientists plan to drill nearly 4 miles below the Earth’s surface

When it comes to the Earth, we've only just scratched the surface – in more ways than one. But, a new project and a mere $1 billion could change all that.

According to a recent CNN article, scientists are planning to drill nearly four miles through the planet's crust and into its mantle – a roughly 2,000-mile-thick layer of rock that makes up most of the Earth's mass. Up until now, the only samples from this layer have come to the surface via volcanic eruptions.

If researchers are able to get their hands on rock from this "undiscovered country," mysteries about the formation and evolution of the planet we call home could be unraveled. So what's the holdup? Drilling technology isn't quite ready for such a massive undertaking. The news source reports that current drill bits only have a life of about 50 to 60 hours. After that, they must be replaced before drilling can continue.

With today's technology, it could take several years to reach the mantle once drilling were to begin. As this blog has discussed on more than one occasion, the key to unlocking mysteries of the universe – including our own planet – is often manufacturing ingenuity.

Not only do scientists need longer-lasting drill bits, but the equipment used to reach deeper into the earth must be able to handle increasingly hot temperatures. Innovative methods of joining dissimilar metals that allow equipment to handle the physical strain and heat associated with drilling four miles deep into the Earth are critical.

Techniques for ceramic to metal bonding are also aiding in the construction of sensor housings for gamma ray detectors. While those sound like something that helped turn Bruce Banner into the Incredible Hulk, they actually assist in steering drill heads through rock using the earth's natural radiation.

Geologist and co-leader of the project Damon Teagle told CNN this is "the most challenging endeavor in the history of Earth science."

Raising the funds for the project will be no small feat either, which gives Teagle a bit of a cushion, during which he hopes drilling technology will advance to the point needed for success. If all goes to plan, he expects humans to reach the Earth's mantle in the next decade.

Manufacturing innovations improve space exploration

Space travel can be exciting, inspirational and lead to untold discoveries about the universe and our own planet. It can also be extremely dangerous.

A routine medical issue on Earth could be a serious emergency aboard a shuttle or station orbiting the planet. In zero gravity, blood cannot be contained the way it can in a hospital operating room. So a moderate wound down here would pose a serious threat to one's life up there. The same thing could be said of a hull breach on a sailboat versus a space shuttle. Down here, you might get wet. In space, lives are constantly at risk.

According to an article in NewScientist, researchers may be making some progress toward mitigating medical risks in space. They are in the process of developing a surgical tool – the Aqueous Immersion Surgical System – that would make performing procedures in space far less dangerous. The device creates a seal around a wound or incision to contain blood and other bodily fluids, while airtight holes allow access to the area via orthoscopic instruments.

But, this is just the beginning. When we also look at the equipment used on the Mars rover Curiosity, like the Power Acquisition Drill System, or PADS, it is clear we are making significant strides. With PADS, Curiosity can drill two inches into the Martian surface and analyze rock samples. Technologies are advancing to the point where they can be deployed in environments so harsh that many thought it never possible.

The soldering solutions and techniques used in joining dissimilar metals that we develop here will allow the most advanced scientific equipment the world has ever seen to reveal mysteries about other planets and beyond. They will also make emergency repairs to shuttles easier and help safeguard the lives of all onboard.

One day, a human being will set foot on the Red Planet because these essential "building block" technologies made it possible.

Innovative metal joining methods improve oil industry operations

As the public debate about drilling in Arctic waters continues, and in light of incidents such as Shell’s Noble Discoverer losing its mooring and drifting uncontrolled toward an Alaskan shore late last month, the petroleum industry can use all the positive innovations it can get.

“Innovation in any industry should result in being able to do something more efficiently, less costly, with increased performance, or, ideally, all three,” writes Jerry Greenberg, contributing editor at World Oil Online. “In the offshore industry, as operators wade into ever-increasing water depths accompanied by ever-increasing costs, drilling contractors, rig designers and equipment manufacturers assist in that effort by developing bigger, or sometimes smaller, but efficient equipment for deep and ultra-deepwater regions.”

By reducing the size of drilling equipment, companies like Shell are presented with a few game-changing options. They can enjoy the benefit of increased deck space on active rigs, or they can reduce overall vessel size while still maintaining functional equipment, thus allowing easier passage through narrow waterways like the Panama Canal.

Through new and innovative metal joining methods, these are all becoming viable options for operators in the oil and natural gas industry. The size of drilling towers and other rig-based equipment can be reduced by eliminating the need for cantilevers to be transversely skidded into place, according to Greenberg. Sensors and other instrumentation that improves on rig analysis of the drilling process also improves the performance of drilling operations.

“No flexible connections are required, due to less-complicated interface between the cantilever and the drill floor,” he explains.

The added benefit of cost reduction frees up money for additional safety measures, oil spill response plans, new job creation and more. The ripple effect is significant, to say the least.

Also of significant value is the efficiency of equipment built using these metal soldering techniques when operating in extreme temperatures and sea conditions, like those found in Arctic waters. With environmental activist groups and the media closely watching drilling activity in that area, every opportunity to increase equipment efficiency and reduce the risk of accidents is an invaluable one.

Military, commercial technology share common goals

In the field, the military uses heavy glass screens for everything from communications equipment to devices meant to detect bombs, chemical and biological weapons.

Obviously there are mobility issues with such cumbersome screens, but there are also other dangers. A thick and sharp shard of glass broken off when impacted during an attack could present a significant threat to armed forces personnel.

According to an article in Chemical and Engineering News, scientists at the U.S. Army Research Laboratory spent $4 million dollars to develop a glue that could survive acids, etching and other harsh conditions of semiconductor manufacturing. This allowed them to design lightweight, flexible screens that could be used on various pieces of equipment, replacing their heavier and more dangerous predecessors.

"The Army recognized that flexible displays were a useful technology, so we wanted to speed their development,” said David C. Morton, who manages the Flexible Display Center at the Army’s lab outside Washington, D.C. "We are successful in the sense that there will be commercial technology this year that the Army will be able to buy."

Efficiently joining dissimilar metals and other materials is leading to staggering breakthroughs in developing equipment used for industrial, military and even space exploration applications. Innovation in just one area can open the floodgates of advancement in countless others.

Solder-based bonding technologies – like those provided by S-Bond – can also effectively bond dissimilar materials and are leading to revolutionary leaps forward in several industries. Windows of opportunity are being opened that were previously glued shut – though clearly they weren't sealed with the same quality we now have the ability to produce.