Magazine article National Defense

Power Remains Key Challenge for Building SOCOM's Iron Man Suit

Magazine article National Defense

Power Remains Key Challenge for Building SOCOM's Iron Man Suit

Article excerpt

* Special Operations Command in 2013 introduced the world to its tactical assault light operator suit concept via a widely disseminated YouTube animated video or a hulking human figure bursting through a door as bullets pinged off its metallic skin.

The press immediately dubbed it the "Iron Man suit."

Then SOCOM leader Navy Adm. William McRaven said the program's goal was to protect commandos entering buildings during raids. The command had recently lost a special operator in just such a circumstance, and the TALOS system would bring a measure of safety for those busting though doors where an armed insurgent may be in waiting.

He managed to have $80 million over four years allocated toward the effort and gave technologists until 2018 to deliver a working prototype.

There are doubters. Now retired Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., in 2014 put TALOS on his annual Wastebook list of government boondoggles, saying experts he had consulted claimed it couldn't be done. On the same list were studies of gambling monkeys, mountain lions on treadmills and the Missile Defense Agency's low success rate shooting down missiles with other missiles.

Though it's in its beginning stages, some estimate it could run way over budget, without ever achieving any results...other than looking cool," Coburn wrote.

SOCOM technologists and senior leaders admit that there are hurdles to overcome, while at the same time express optimism that the project will deliver the protection that its most vulnerable operators require.

The program is progressing as planned, but "many significant challenges remain," Army Gen. Joseph Votel, SOCOM commander, said at the National Defense Industrial Association Special Operations/Low Intensity Conflict conference in Washington, D.C. He said the suit was still "on track."

Powering the suit, allowing the operator freedom of movement and view screens that don't have latency issues are three of the main challenges, said Anthony Davis, director of science and technology at SOCOM.

Today, with front and back plates, plus a helmet, less than 20 percent of an individual is protected, Davis noted. State-of-the-art body armor weighs between eight to 12 pounds per square foot. One hundred percent coverage of an operator would require 500 to 600 pounds of armor. The program will have to look at how the armor is distributed, carried and supported, he said.

"A lot of work needs to be done on control theory and how we control those actuators and how they will enable the suits," he said.

Controlling and lifting all that armor will require a lot of energy, he added.

Davis said an exoskeleton will require three to five kilowatts of power for a 10-to 12-hour operation. "Currently, there is nothing available man-packable that can provide that kind of power source," he said.

SOCOM's three main challenges in fielding the suit will be "power, power and power," said Peter W. Singer, strategist and senior fellow at the New America Foundation, and author of several books about military technology and robotics.

"It's not going to be unsolvable. It's just going to be a huge challenge and one of the key limitations for various exoskeleton programs," said Singer in an interview.

The armor will have to hang off some kind of exoskeleton, which would serve as a frame for the body armor. Several companies have been developing this technology, which has the promise of boosting the strength and endurance of those who wear it.

Singer said there have been several proposals put forth for portable battlefield energy on such systems. Solar is one. Another is kinetic energy, or using the body's movements to generate electricity. Unfortunately, the numbers don't add up for what SOCOM wants. They are still in low percentages, he said.

"Power seems to be the really big [challenge]. But it's not just SOCOM that's interested. …

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