Super Soldiers may not be something only seen in sci-fi movies.
The U.S. Army is developing--in conjunction with a Salt Lake City robotics company, Sarkos--technology to turn a 98-pound weakling into a Superman. "The future is now" was the motto of George Allen, of LA Rams and Washington Redskins fame. It might just as well be the motto of the U.S. Army.
Rex Jameson bikes and swims regularly, and plays tennis and skis when time allows. But the 5-foot-11, 180-pound software engineer is lucky if he presses 200 pounds—that is, until he steps into an "exoskeleton" of aluminum and electronics that multiplies his strength and endurance as many as 20 times.
With the outfit's claw-like metal hand extensions, he gripped a weight set's bar at a recent demonstration and knocked off hundreds of repetitions. Once, he did 500.
"Everyone gets bored much more quickly than I get tired," Jameson said.
Jameson—who works for robotics firm Sarcos Inc. in Salt Lake City, which is under contract with the U.S. Army—is helping assess the 150-pound suit's viability for the soldiers of tomorrow. The suit works by sensing every movement the wearer makes and almost instantly amplifying it.
The video below gives a demonstration of the latest offerings from Sarkos.
The Army is planning for the day that soldiers wear the robotic exoskeletons into combat, but for now is putting its emphasis on developing more mundane applications, such as loading heavy equipment or cargo into trucks or repairing heavily-armored vehicles.
Sarkos' two-year contract with the Army may be worth as much as $10 million.
Field tests by the Army are expected to begin sometime in 2009.
The biggest barrier to developing the exoskeletons into a practical combat weapon is one that very much resides in the here-and-now: cost. But, like any new high-tech products, price usually drops rapidly after others jump into the market and develop competing applications.
"We see the value being realized when these suits can be built in great numbers for both military and commercial uses, and they start coming down in cost to within the range of the price of a small car," said Jacobsen. He declined to estimate how much the suit might cost in mass production.
Battery life is also an issue at present: current battery life is just a little over a half hour.
But cost isn't the only obstacle. For example, developers eventually hope to lengthen the suit's backpack battery's life and tinker with the suit's design to use less energy. Meanwhile, the suit can draw power from a generator, a tank or helicopter. And there are gas engines that, while noisy, small enough to fit into the suit's backpack.
"The power issue is probably the No. 1 challenge standing in the way of getting this thing in the field," Obusek said.
The U.S. Army's foray into robotic soldiers (1995) isn't much older than a couple of famous Hollywood movies featuring an exoskeleton-clad hero: Robo-Cop (1987) and Robo-Cop 2 (1990). Robo-cop was a cyborg--part man, part machine--but the idea of a human enhanced by robotic features--is the same.
The U.S. Army program is all about expanding human capabilities using robotics.
But the technology already offers evidence that robotics can amplify human muscle power in reality—not just in the realm of comic books and movies like the recently debuted "Iron Man," about a wealthy weapons designer who builds a high-tech suit to battle bad guys.
"Everybody likes the idea of being a superhero, and this is all about expanding the capabilities of a human," said Stephen Jacobsen, chief designer of the Sarcos suit.
The Army's exoskeleton research dates to 1995, but has yet to yield practical suits. Sarcos' technology sufficiently impressed Raytheon Co., however, that the Waltham, Mass.-based defense contractor bought Sarcos' robotics business last November. Sarcos also has developed robotic dinosaurs for a Universal Studios' "Jurassic Park" theme park ride.
What's this mean--in practical terms--for the future of Super Soldiers?
Jack Obusek, a former colonel now with the Army's Soldier Research Development and Engineering Center in the Boston suburb of Natick, foresees robot-suited soldiers unloading heavy ammunition boxes from helicopters, lugging hundreds of pounds of gear over rough terrain or even relying on the suit's strength-enhancing capabilities to make repairs to tanks that break down in inconvenient locations.
Sarcos' Jacobsen envisions factory workers someday using the technology to perform manual labor more easily, and firefighters more quickly carrying heavy gear up stairwells of burning buildings. Disabled people also may find uses for the technology, he said.
Super Soldiers aren't going to be showing up on battlefields in Iraq in the next few months--or probably in the next few years--but their day is fast approaching.
While it's a great innovation for U.S. soldiers, expect to see the exoskeletons filter down soon afterwards--like paramilitary tactics and military gear--to big city police departments, and eventually as the price comes down, smaller cities and villages police.
Then the sci-fi idea will become that oldest of military analogies: the double-edge sword.
hat tip: Ernest Hancock, Freedom's Phoenix