Since Tony Stark is unavailable to advise the military on its robotic exoskeleton project, officials have turned to the next best thing: the special effects team that made the Iron Man costume. "It's daunting," says Lindsay MacGowan, co-founder of Legacy Effects, "because somebody's life eventually is in your hands."
The Wall Street Journal reports that the Academy Award-winning studio — which also designed suits for RoboCop and X-Men: Days of Future Past — is one of several companies hired by the military for Project TALOS (Tactical Assault Light Operator Suit). Other developers include a Canadian company that is studying how sumo wrestlers fight while carrying so much weight, researchers in Florida studying medieval suits of armor, and Ekso Bionics, known for designing an exoskeleton that enables paraplegics to walk. Legacy Effects is using 3D printers to create rapid prototypes of body armor designs.
The developers presented several prototypes to the military in late June. "We have projects now that are going to range from exoskeletons, to micro-climate cooling vests, to spines that support the helmet," project manager Brian Dowling tells WSJ. "The human body can't look too different in its form and function, but the technology you'll see will look drastically different than a soldier today."
High-tech power armor — a longtime plot element of science fiction stories ranging from Starship Troopers to Appleseed — has been a goal of the military for decades, leading to millions of dollars worth of failed prototypes. The motivation for this latest project, according to WSJ, came in December 2012 when members of the SEAL Team Six converged on a compound in eastern Afghanistan to free a Colorado doctor held hostage by militants:
As commandos stormed the compound, and freed the doctor, one SEAL was shot and killed. Afterward, Adm. William McRaven, the head of U.S. Special Operations Command who oversaw the SEAL Team Six raid in Pakistan that killed Osama bin Laden in 2011, decided his forces needed better protection.
"It was one of those incidents where we stepped back and asked, 'What's our long-term vision?' " said James "Hondo" Geurts, the Pentagon official who oversees acquisition programs …."We've done about all we can with our current approach. Is it time to take a bold leap ahead?"
But tests of an early prototype in May revealed how far a leap is required. The tester had problems running with the metal braces strapped to his legs, and the exoskeleton motor kept kicking out of gear. Another big hurdle is power; researchers estimate they need 365 pounds of batteries to power the type of suit the military is envisioning. "Iron Man got it right: It's all about the arc reactor," jokes Russ Angold, the co-founder of Esko Bionics. "If someone can come up with that it would be fantastic."
With an initial budget of $80 million —small, by Pentagon standards — the TALOS program's goal is to develop an "independently operational combat suit prototype" by July 2018.
Some defense industry officials are skeptical, according to Military News:
"To do it right, they need about a billion dollars," said an experienced industry official who works for a large defense firm. He asked that his name not be used for this story. "Twenty million dollars a year in an R&D budget— you couldn't even develop a pencil on that."
This may sound overly cynical, but it's fairly accurate in terms of the U.S. Army's track record for developing smart-soldier technology. The service is now equipping combat units with a secure, smartphone device— known as Nett Warrior—that allows a leader to track subordinates' locations in relation to his own position via icons on a digital map. The unit leaders can view satellite imagery and even send text messages.
The technology has seen combat and given leaders a precise view of their tactical environment, empowering units to operate more decisively than ever before.
But the program's success did not come easily. Land Warrior, the first generation of this computerized command-and-control ensemble, was plagued by failure. From its launch in 1996, the Army spent $500 million on three major contract awards before the system's reliability problems were solved in 2006.
Mindful of previous cost overruns, the House Armed Services Committee recently voted to monitor the progress of this latest effort.
But, military officials claim this time will be different. Project managers hope to save money and time by sidestepping traditional approaches toward defense contracting, instead opting to assemble this think tank of developers.
"This one won't be flying anytime soon," says MacGowan. "And it won't be red or gold, but it'll be something that is in the history books."
[Via Wall Street Journal]