Super hero movies are all the rage these days.  Take a look at the swollen coffers of Marvel and DC and it will be apparent.  With such a vested interest in the super-human, it seems only natural that it would be brought to real life.  No, there has not been a revolutionary breakthrough in gene therapy (X-Men style), and nobody is as diesel as Batman, but the researchers over at Raytheon’s recent acquisition, Sarcos Lab, have set their sights on super-strength with the design of their XOS exoskeleton.  Capable of lifting over 200 pounds without the operator breaking a sweat, this DARPA funded meld of man and machine will make any Iron Man fanboy plotz.

Capable of lifting 200 pounds, but still gentle to the touch.
Capable of lifting 200 pounds, but still gentle to the touch.

We have featured other exoskeletons here on the Hub, but this one takes the cake.  The super-suit is being designed for the U.S. Army, where the plan is to turn soldiers into workhorses.  They would be able to lift hundreds of pounds of ammunition and cargo without feeling the slightest bit of strain, making the fast unloading of precious cargo take significantly less time.  The system is run by a computer that receives input from six pressure sensors located on the exoskeleton.  With that input, the computer can then determine which action the user is trying to do and tell the suit to mimic the action before the human actually exerts any force.  The user only feels the weight of his or her arms and not that of the object being lifted.

Currently, the suit is limited in terms of mobility because power and hydraulic pressure come from an external source.  The researchers at Sarcos have yet to develop a portable power source for the suit, but that is on the shortlist of improvements for future designs.  The first step for the researchers was to create an effortless shadowing system and, now that it has been accomplished, they are now moving onto the power problem.  Take a look at the video below to see the XOS suit work its magic.  It’s a few years old but, because of the classified nature of this project, there’s not much footage out there.

Work has already begun on reducing energy consumption so that the device may be powered by a battery pack for up to a days worth of continuous use.  The hydraulic valves that act as the suit’s muscles have been redesigned so that they only require energy when in operation, an improvement in hydraulic function that researchers at Sarcos claim they had to innovate themselves.  While much of the information regarding the project is classified, it is known that military trials of the suit are set to begin sometime this year, if they haven’t already.  While the power situation does not seem to have been worked out just yet, the first uses for the suit will probably be for stationary manual labor.

Such a marvel (pun certainly intended) of engineering and robotics has been a long time coming.  The project began in 2000 and has gone through four evolutions of the suit.  The pace at which this project progressed to the point where superhuman strength is an effortless feat can give credence to the thought that the future is not far off.  Perhaps it may be a few years before these suits are seen on the battlefield, but it is impressive enough to hear somebody say that they gave up on lifting a 200-pound weight after 500 repetitions not because they were tired but because they were bored.

We live in an age of constant progress where man’s mastery of the human body and the world around it has shown that there really are no limitations.  Well, maybe time travel could get a little sticky with all the paradoxes and such, but science fiction and fantasy are fast becoming reality.  This idea began as a children’s story when it first debuted over 45 years ago as Iron Man and nobody but the most die-hard comic book fans ever though that a mechanized suit would possibly exist.  These comic book writers are effectively predicting the future.  Perhaps it is time to switch religions to the Church of Marvel?

Andrew is a recent graduate of Northeastern University in Boston, MA with a Bachelor of Science in Chemical Engineering. While at Northeastern, he worked on a Department of Defense project intended to create a product that adsorbs and destroys toxic nerve agents and also worked as part of a consulting firm in the fields of battery technology, corrosion analysis, vehicle rollover analysis, and thermal phenomena. Andrew is currently enrolled in a Juris Doctorate program at Boston College School of Law.