The Pentagon can’t seem to drop aspirations for a time when troops can don Iron Man-like exosuits, but while the technology is around a decade away, a more realistic exosuit might soon be arriving in a war theater near you.
“We’re building Iron Man…. Not really. Maybe. It’s classified,” President Barack Obama said back in late February 2014 on the development of advanced exosuits.
According to a report from the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), exosuit technology is distinct from robotics, in that the goal is not to replace an individual, but to augment with a wearable suit which molds to the human form and results in enhanced capabilities, like running, lifting heavy objects, and using advanced sensors to scan the environment.
Since the exosuit first arrived on the science fiction literary science in the late 1950s, the U.S. Army has been hard at work trying to make that vision a reality. “Twenty or 30 years ago, it may have seemed far-fetched,” chief of the Dismounted Warrior Branch at the Army Research Laboratory Mike LaFiandra told Army Times. “When I look at the Warrior Web prototypes, I don’t think it’s far-fetched. I think it’s a matter of time.”
Currently, the Army is working on a project called the Tactical Assault Light Operator Suit program with a slated goal of 2018 for when the exosuits are ready to roll out into the field for ground-combat operations. The Army envisions a scenario in which military personnel will be able to break down doors and take AK-47 fire with relative ease. While the combat applications of exosuits are fairly clear, CNAS recommended that researchers don’t neglect repair functions, noting that exosuits could be used in the repair of ships or to increase the efficiency of port operations.
This could dramatically reduce fatigue and injury claims, as well as lower training costs.
“Active or passive load-bearing could support an increase in the weight individuals can lift and carry, the precision of their movements and the amount of protection their gear provides, as well as additional benefits such as cooling or heating systems,” CNAS analysts wrote. “In addition to acting as physical protection, suits could also mechanically or electrically maintain balance and warn the user before entry into dangerous areas on the flight deck.”
Defense contractors like Raytheon and Lockheed Martin have led the way, but one main problem has plagued progress for decades: battery life. Raytheon’s XOS 2 only has 30 minutes of battery life but allows a soldier to shoulder 400 pounds of weight. Lockheed Martin’s device, the HULC, fares better with a five-hour charge, but with the requirements of flat terrain and a speed of only 2.5 mph. In areas where exosuits would likely be deployed, a lack of stable infrastructure would only serve to compound power issues.
In the meantime, the U.S. Army considers Iron Man-like exosuits to be the next frontier of combat operations and will continue to aggressively invest to upgrade troop capabilities in the field.
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