Astronauts often have to be tethered to a bulkhead or other stationary object to work in space, which can be a hindrance while carrying out any number of tasks, both in and outside the spacecraft. To help astronauts mitigate the weightless effects while working in microgravity, researchers from MIT’s Media Lab have designed a soft robotic tail that serves as a sort of balance mechanism that responds to the wearer’s movements.
The idea behind the SpaceHuman soft robotic tail is to allow space travelers to grab objects, anchor to surfaces, and maintain balance while floating. The researchers were inspired by seahorse’s ability to travel through the ocean while maintaining an upright position. The additive prosthetic acts as an extension of the human body and was developed using several ribbed tubes made of silicone. Those tubes are comprised of 36 air chambers that can be inflated into different configurations via 12 battery-operated air pumps attached to a waistband, which gives the tail the ability to curve or lengthen.
The tail is outfitted with a series of sensors that respond to the wearer’s movements, such as grabbing onto surfaces to adjust stability, acting as a rudder while floating from one point to another, or even picking up objects when needed. It also features an object-tracking camera that uses an algorithm to identify colors and materials, which have been uploaded to a system that processes that information and allows the tail to respond accordingly based on the object, distance, and body position.
The SpaceHuman robotic tail has already undergone some Zero-G flight experiments to asses its performance in a simulated gravity environment during parabolic flight. The researchers plan to continue those experiments focusing on how well the tail can reach and grab onto objects using the camera for object tracking.