The Very Real Future of Iron Man Suits for the Navy

The FORTIS exoskeleton from Lockheed Martin could increase productivity of naval shipyard builders by 20%,, according to the manufacturers.

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The FORTIS exoskeleton from Lockheed Martin could increase productivity of naval shipyard builders by 20%,, according to the manufacturers.

Exoskeleton technology for dismounted soldiers is limited by power constraints that don’t exist on ships. By Patrick Tucker

One day, troops will strap on bulletproof Iron Man suits and fly into battle, but only after a breakthrough in portable power storage that may not arrive for another decade. In the meantime, exoskeletons do have real military potential today, if only the Pentagon can shed some of its comic-book inspired notions and deploy them where they can do the most good — on ships. That’s according to a new report from the Center for New American Security.

If you’ve played the most recent edition of the popular Call of Duty videogame, recently watched “Edge of Tomorrow” or any of the “Iron Man” movies, your perception of military exoskeletons probably consists of something that a soldier brings with him or her into battle. This image isn’t completely fictional. The Army’s Tactical Assault Light Operator Suit program, TALOS, aims to outfit soldiers heading into combat with wearable exosuits before 2018.

The military doesn’t mind playing up the super hero angle in the media it releases on these programs. In the following video, a cartoon soldier wearing TALOS gear barges through a door and then confronts a shower of bullets without taking a step back. 

When the first TALOS suit does hit the field, it will likely feature an array of sensors to monitor and broadcast soldier health, and possibly wound-clotting foam that the armor would send into bullet wounds to stop bleeding, (check out DARPA’s Wound Stasis System program for more.) But if you expect your super soldier to bust through a wall, fistfight a room of bad guys and then make it back to base before his battery runs out, then you’ve been watching too many movies.

Today’s experimental combat exosuits are incredibly limited by the amount of power they need to perform super-power functions, according to Andrew Herr and Lt. Scott Cheney-Peters, the report’s authors.

“Raytheon’s XOS 2 can operate for 20 to 30 minutes on a single battery charge, while Lockheed Martin reports that its HULC system has a five-hour battery life, but this is only when operating at the relatively slow speed of 2.5 mph on level terrain.”

That power thirst removes the advantage of exoskeletons in environments where a steady power supply is absent because of civil unrest or heavily guarded infrastructure, basically any place where soldiers might, you know, have to fight.

Marvel super hero inventor Stan Lee gets around the problem in the Iron Man comics by arming his protagonist with a novel nuclear power source, the Arc Reactor, that’s based on some creative notions of radioactive decay. Most other scriptwriters relying on exoskeletons as props or narrative devices simply don’t address the problem. After all, who wants to sit through two hours of Tom Cruise hunting for a wall outlet?

In real life, those energy limitations matter much less on shipboard environments where exosuits can be powered by tethers that reach the ship’s power supply or where replacement batteries can be stashed around the ship. With a constant source of power available, exosuits can begin to meet their more fantastic potential far sooner.

Tethered to a steady power source, some experimental models like the XOS 2 and HULC can achieve “bursts of speed up to 10 mph; the ability to run, walk, kneel and even crawl; the strength to lift 200 pounds or more in awkward positions repetitively; and the ability to operate almost continuously,” says the report.

But what would robo-suit wearing sailors be doing if not punching through doors? There’s plenty of hard and dirty jobs on board many of today’s cramped Navy craft, like reloading, repairing and replacing parts, arms or equipment.

This shipyard wearable brace from South Korean company Daewoo Ship Building and Marine Engineering weighs just 62 pounds and, one day, could help workers lift as much as 220. (Today, it can lift about as much as it weighs.) Lockheed Martin’s FORTIS program claims that it can make shipyard workers up to 20 times more productive. They offer the same sort of capabilities as ship robots like the Shipboard Autonomous Firefighting Robot or SAFFiR, currently under development by the Office of Naval Research but don’t require the same sort of research and development (possibly decades worth) before they become fully operational.

“Exosuits could also expedite port visits, particularly at underdeveloped ports, by accelerating line-handling, hooking up shore power cables and other ship-to-shore connections, on-loading and offloading stores and ammunition and especially by distributing those items to various departments throughout the ship by way of the cramped passageways where forklifts cannot tread. While these may seem like mundane tasks, they are also critical to the regular operations of a ship and absorb substantial time and effort,” the report’s authors write.

That’s not to say that Navy exosuits would never get close to any action. The Navy’s so-called Beachmaster Units could use exoskeletons in their role helping amphibious battle groups like SEAL teams get their equipment and vehicles on shore faster (ship-to-shore movement) by clearing brush and other beach junk.

That could be a force-multiplier in a variety of difficult situations, if not in combat then certainly in humanitarian or disaster relief missions following hurricanes and tsunami, where Navy or Marines are often the first on the ground.

“The overlapping requirements with damage control would allow for a relatively quick transition for operators and suits. If initial airlift, ship or port capacity is limited or degraded by the disaster, the value of having a versatile tool like a high-dexterity exosuit would be magnified because the range of specialized equipment normally used in such a situation would be unavailable,” says the report.

Navy exosuits could change not just day-to-day operations aboard ships but also the future design of craft, potentially freeing up room that’s today taken up with special equipment. But realizing that potential is only possible if the models can be made versatile enough to handle many jobs. Most importantly, they should be designed for roles outside of combat, the authors say. “Bulking up the suit to meet ground-combat needs would also decrease its effectiveness in critical maritime missions because of space constraints,” they warn.

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