Drones might be the talk about town in policy circles, but they are not what’s exciting in robotics. The real future is in human enhancement. The fundamental barrier between man and machine is eroding more and more each day. Soon it will be hard to tell where one ends and the other begins. The impact of those changes will be no less than revolutionary on human society, and the United States Armed Services are not about to be left out in the cold.
The Defense Advancement Research Projects Agency, better known as DARPA, has been pursuing this field for decades. In 1985 retired four star general Paul F. Gorman published a paper for that organization detailing his version of the so called “Super Suit” or “Iron Man” suit in today’s terms. He envisioned an exoskeleton that would protect its wearer from two of the most dangerous conditions on the battlefield- fear and fatigue. The advanced armor would be able to stop a .50-caliber bullet, neutralize chemical and biological, and even inhibit certain types of radiation. All the while the wearer would enjoy the benefits of personalized visual, audio, and haptic enhancement, and the comfort of a climate controlled environment.[i] Needless to say the computing power to operate such a complex machine was light years away, but that did not stop Gorman and his colleagues from dreaming about what was to come.
Now,30 years later that future is almost here. Multiple DARPA funded projects are dedicating millions of dollars and thousands of man-hours each year into making Gorman’s dream a reality. The Warrior Web Project is one particularly promising innovation. While not exactly a “Super Suit,” this tidy little exoskeleton could make life on the battlefield an entirely different experience. The 40lbs device is designed to assist the wearer in performing typical combat tasks-lifting heavy loads, walking long distances, jumping over obstacles. It may even get some past the infamous “4-minute mile” mark, all while drawing on less than 100 watts of power.[ii] Imagine the difference that could make for service members on their third, forth, even fifth deployment, or for Special Forces operators tasked with doing the impossible.
The Warrior Web isn’t the only new toy making a splash though. The HULC or Human Universal Load Carrier, a Lockheed Martin design, will allow soldiers to carry over 200lbs at a walk or a run, something that could come in handy while hauling around crates of ammunition or evacuating a wounded soldier.[iii] Meanwhile, the Navy is experimenting with tethered operating suits like the XOS 2 from Raytheon that can increase productivity in shipyards by as much a 200%.[iv] And then there is of course the TALOS (short for Tactical Light Operator Suit). This is really the embodiment of Gordon’s original vision. In addition to enhanced physical protection and sensory abilities, this modern marvel is equipped with a hemorrhage control system and an oxygen supply that could save the wearers life in the event of catastrophic injury. [v]
We won’t see the TALOS or machines like it on the battlefield for several more years, but in an age where billions of dollars are being spent to build bigger and better guns, or faster and smarter planes, it is nice to know that the government still cares about protecting the lives of our fighting men and women.