Magazine article National Defense

Pentagon's Robotic Exosuit Program Making Strides

Magazine article National Defense

Pentagon's Robotic Exosuit Program Making Strides

Article excerpt

* Scientists and engineers are pushing forward a cutting-edge U.S. military robotics project that could reduce war fighter fatigue and ward off injuries.

The Warrior Web program, spearheaded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, aims to significantly lower the "metabolic cost''--or energy expenditure--of troops operating in the field, and reduce the physiological burden of the gear that they carry, which can exceed 100 pounds.

To accomplish this, the Defense Department and the private sector are developing soft robotic exosuits that are designed to provide power and torque to critical body joints.

To accomplish this, the Defense Department and the private sector are developing soft robotic exosuits that are designed to provide power and torque to critical body joints.

"Then what we want to do is use cables to apply force... [and] give some assistance to the joints in a way that doesn't add a lot of weight or a lot of mass to the legs of the wearer," he added.

Sensors on the system monitor the movement of the user and control the timing of the cables, he said. They give commands to a microprocessor that tells motors when they should pull in order to apply assistance to the wearer.

The initiative began in 2011. Since then, at least 15 Warrior Web prototypes have been tested in laboratories and outdoor settings, according to Mike LaFiandra, chief of the Army Research Laboratory's dismounted warrior branch, human research and engineering directorate.

DARPA has partnered closely with the lab and the Army's Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center to advance the program.

Demonstrations were conducted in April at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland.

"Some of the systems didn't fair very well and some of them were great," LaFiandra said.

Additional tests and demonstrations have been conducted at Natick, the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York, and academic institutions such as Harvard. More are slated for later this year, and the spring and summer of 2017.

"There's still research that needs to be done there but for the first time, we've been showing a reduction in metabolic cost with soldiers carrying heavier loads wearing a Warrior Web-type system," LaFiandra said.

The amount of reduction depends on the individual wearing the suit, but researchers have seen greater than 10 percent in some cases, he said.

The amount of reduction depends on the individual wearing the suit, but researchers have seen greater than 10 percent in some cases, he said.

Walsh said the goal is to achieve a reduction of 25 percent or more. "The exciting thing is that you're able to now kind of say...it's possible to make it easier for a healthy person to walk when carrying a load," he said. "Now we're kind of at this next juncture...to say, 'How do we make the benefit as big as possible?"'

Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley is bullish about the potential of robotic exosuits.

"They're not ready for prime time today but...I think with-in 10 years things like that are going to be very, very possible on the battlefield," he said at a recent conference.

Major technological and engineering hurdles must be surmounted before the technology would be ready for fielding.

Power requirements are a key consideration, said Henry Girolamo, the lead for emerging concepts and technologies at Natick's warfighting directorate.

Gear that dismounted soldiers carry, such as radios, already require a lot of juice, he noted.

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"If you introduce something like an exosuit that consumes a big power budget, it's just going to take away from what they need to have in power for the rest of their electronics" and force them to carry more batteries, he said.

For the Warrior Web program, DARPA has set the maximum power consumption from the battery source at 100 watts. …

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