How science is turning soldiers into superheroes. By Patrick Tucker
The average spider can stay perched in a web for long hours waiting for prey and can lift eight times its own body weight. The average soldier – cannot. The military is trying to change that with help from scientists at Harvard’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering, called on to develop a so-called “Soft Exosuit.” The suit would imbue the wearer with what might be called “super” endurance and lifting ability. It may sounds like the “Iron Man” suit the military’s already tinkering with, but this Spidey suit would be constructed mostly of an experimental textile material in a scientifically-designed “web” pattern, rather than a bunch of hydraulic pumps and metal.
It would have a small low-energy microprocessor but wouldn’t need an enormous battery pack for operation. The prototype even comes equipped with Spidey sense in the form of a “network of supple strain sensors that act as the ‘brain’ and ‘nervous system’ of the Soft Exo-suit, respectively — continuously monitoring various data signals, including the suit tension, the position of the wearer (e.g., walking, running, crouched), and more.”
Importantly, the project is different from the Z-Man program, which created suction cups and sticky skin to climb walls.
The extra strength and endurance capabilities, while they may be “super,” won’t necessarily be dramatic. The suit, which would be worn under a soldier’s regular gear, is mostly to prevent injuries so the soldier would be able to walk far further without feeling his or her own weight nearly as much, or could be spared muscle strain when attempting to lift.
When will we have an exoskeleton that enables a soldier to bust through walls or throw cars? Sorry, researchers believe that would indeed require some power system that humanity has not yet devised. But animals are able to manage these feats of strength somehow, which suggests that the secret to true exoskeleton super abilities lies not in devising novel nuclear reactors (see Tony Starks’s Arc reactor) but in harnessing the chemicals and the designs present in the animal world. That’s Wyss’s forte. The institute takes nature’s secrets and applies them to human needs, everything from foldable nano-robots to fight cancer to so-called organs on a chip, or microchips lined with human cells to facilitate drug testing.
Wyss’s understated approach to exoskeleton design, which is being funded with nearly $3 million under the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s Warrior Web project, represents a divergence from other military-funded prototypes and projects. Consider the Tactical Assault Light Operator Suit or TALOS suit, which the military wants to put on battlefields prior to 2018. The TALOS is loaded with situational awareness systems (sensors and helmet displays) blast resistant plates, wound-sealing foam guns and a lot of other features that will add to weight, power draw and overall conspicuousness. Then there’s the Lockheed Martin FORTIS, under development for the Navy, 30 pounds of aluminum and carbon fiber to increase worker productivity at shipyards. The Lockheed Martin HULC is a metal, battery-powered wearable frame designed to help infantrymen carry 200-pound loads for 20 kilometers per battery charge. It, too, is a lot of metal.
Some of the more interesting exoskeleton-design is occurring outside of the military marketplace all together, but could influence future designs for warfighters. Several independent developers, like the folks behind the Mindwalker project, are working on robotic suits to help the elderly or disabled walk again. A fledgling startup called Sagawa Electronics out of Tokyo, was manufacturing what they were call a Power Jacket MK3, a mechanical assemblage that lifts the user up about two feet and extends arm reach, back in 2012 and 13 for ¥12.5 million (yen). A Korean company called Daewoo Shipbuilding and Marine Engineering has outfitted many of its workers with a suit that they hope, one day, will help shipbuilders hoist 220 pounds without breaking a sweat. A company called B-Temia is developing what they call dermoskeletal technology to take the stress of a user’s knees when that user is walking (for both soldiers and the public).
DARPA’s Spider-Man suit may or may not beat the Navy’s Iron Man, but the exoskeleton race is running at full steam.