Science: Meet the Army's Newest Recruit ; the US Defense Department Is Spending Millions of Dollars on the Development of an Exoskeleton for Hi-Tech Combat. but, Asks Owen Dyer, Is This Really the Future of Warfare?
Dyer, Owen, The Independent (London, England)
It's nearly 500 years since the armoured knight was chased from the European battlefield by gun-wielding commoners. But if the US Army gets its way, the men in the iron pyjamas may soon be back, and this time they will have technology on their side. The US Department of Defense is currently handing out grants to develop powered suits of armour that boast superhuman capabilities.
"Exoskeletons for human performance augmentation" is the title that has been given to a research programme that seeks to enhance the infantryman's strength, speed and endurance. According to the programme outline, applicants looking for a slice of the $50m (pounds 35m) research pie must design an outfit that will "increase locomotive speed, augment human strength, and leap extraordinary heights and/or distances." Like Superman, the wearer should be faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, and able to leap tall buildings in a single bound.
On the face of it, the logic of the exoskeleton is impeccable. There are dozens of available technologies that can increase the infantryman's ability to fight and survive - night vision, satellite navigation using the global positioning system (GPS), chemical and biological protection, even electronic translators - but together, they are simply too heavy for one man to carry. An infantryman in a powered suit could carry all of this equipment, plus better armour and a bigger gun.
The proposed exoskeleton springs straight from the pages of science fiction. Robert Heinlein's 1959 classic Starship Troopers described a similar piece of equipment, with the additional accessory of backpack- launched nuclear missiles. The big screen has brought us Robocop, Star Wars' stormtroopers, and the famous final scene in the movie Aliens, in which Sigourney Weaver dons a powered, human-shaped forklift to shove the evil alien queen through an airlock.
In fact, Sigourney Weaver's suit bears a startling resemblance to the US military's last attempt to make a powered exoskeleton. Named Hardiman 1, this 1,500lb monster was developed by General Electric in the Sixties, but the project was soon abandoned. The inventors were unable to make more than one arm work, and any attempt to move both legs produced a "violent and uncontrolled motion".
Crude and dangerous as it was, Hardiman came closer to fruition than any of the current crop of projects has managed as yet. The exoskeleton project is being handled by Darpa, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. This is the institution that gave birth to the internet in the Seventies. So far, they have awarded four major research contracts under the exoskeleton programme. One of these, at the University of California at Berkeley, has produced a legs-only model powered by a chainsaw engine.
Two other contractors, Oak Ridge National Laboratory and Utah- based Sarcos Research Corporation, have developed slave limbs of extraordinary strength. The Oak Ridge lab's device lets the user lift a 2,200kg bomb as if it weighed 4kg. But neither has produced a wearable suit. A fourth contractor, California's Millennium Jet Corporation, is working on a rotor-powered one-man flying harness.
The scientists working on these projects admit that production models are years away. Surprisingly, the flying harness is probably the closest to reality, precisely because it is not an exoskeleton, but a rigid frame. The developers do not have to worry about mirroring the fantastic complexity of human movement, and the control system relies on simple joysticks.
Exoskeletons are more difficult, because Darpa has specified that it does not want a machine that is controlled by buttons and levers, but a suit that reads muscle movements and translates them into mechanical motion. This is known as a "haptic interface". It has been used for years by remote arms for handling radioactive materials, but wearable body suits will require major breakthroughs in the field. …