The US Army recently put out a call for proposals to build a futuristic climate-controlled suit of armor that would make soldiers smarter, stronger, and tougher. As ever, it’s tempting to draw Hollywood comparisons—Iron Man, in this case—because they fire up the imagination and serve as a simple metaphor.
Of course, despite a few shared objectives, what’s being proposed here isn’t remotely on par with the Iron Man suit. It won’t fly; it won’t have a friendly AI chatting away in a soldier’s ear; it won’t have a miniature Arc Reactor delivering heat-free power equivalent to a nuclear sub. And it’s yet just a concept.
To accelerate the project, the army recently requested white papers from industry, academia, individuals, and public labs to speculate on how such a suit (Tactical Assault Light Operator Suit or TALOS) might be built.
Although it isn’t Iron Man, might a simpler suit be realistic? Sure. Many of the required technologies are already here. And in fact, a number of their inventors gathered at a July demonstration for TALOS (below). The army says it expects "1st gen capability" inside a year. Though realistically, it might be longer than that.
TALOS will likely feature a powered exoskeleton for strength and endurance. Two possible candidates are Lockheed Martin’s HULC or Raytheon’s XOS 2. These exoskeletons endow super-strength, allowing soldiers to easily lift weights of a few hundred pounds.
Meanwhile, advanced Kevlar body armor dipped in a kind of liquid ceramic may serve as a light, bulletproof skin for the suit. Norman Wagner, a professor of chemical engineering at the University of Delaware, told NPR, "It transitions when you hit it hard. These particles organize themselves quickly, locally in a way that they can't flow anymore and they become like a solid."
And as for head-mounted displays—there’s been a flurry of activity in the augmented reality space over the last year or so. You’ve heard of Google Glass and its display projected directly on the retina. Other examples include Vusix, GlassUp, and Meta SpaceGlasses. The military may find a viable design in the crowd or build their own based on similar technology, adding additional powers, like night vision, into the mix.
A central challenge will be power. The suit would require a battery pack. But even with a good set of batteries, it couldn’t operate for extended periods away from a power source for charging. And big batteries have been known to explode in electric cars—friendly fire the military would no doubt like to avoid.
But improving battery technology is already getting plenty of dollars and research in the electric car industry. And absent better batteries (or cold fusion), the less glamorous solution would be to keep the suit and soldier tethered to a vehicle for heavy lifting.
The military is also funding research into robots to aid soldiers in the field. Boston Dynamics’ Darpa-funded LS3, for example, is nearing use in the field as a pack-robot that can autonomously (yet dutifully) follow its master. Other Boston Dynamics military robots include Atlas and Wildcat. And of course, the military already infamously uses drones to perform surveillance and precision strikes.
Thankfully, the technology isn't only for warfare—there are peaceful applications too.
Google Glass and other wearable devices may soon augment smartphones for technophiles. Exoskeletons or other robotic prosthetics may give disabled folks new freedom or prevent injuries for industrial workers handling heavy loads. At home or on the front lines, it appears the merger of man and machine continues apace.