Future soldiers may be wearing 'Iron Man' suits
By Eric Marrapodi and Chris Lawrence, CNN
November 11, 2010 3:15 p.m. EST
Salt Lake City, Utah (CNN) -- A lunchtime crowd is gathering beside the parking lot at Raytheon Sarcos, the defense contractor, on a recent day in Salt Lake City. White-collar workers from nearby office parks stand with their yogurt cups and sandwiches, watching with quiet awe as a man in a metal suit -- sort of half-man, half-robot -- performs superhuman feats of strength.
This may be the closest these people will get to a real-life "Iron Man," the character from the comic books and hit movies.
Inside a prosthetic shell of metal and hydraulics, Raytheon test engineer Rex Jameson is putting an XOS-2 exoskeleton through its paces.
As the crowd watches, Jameson uses his robot hydraulic arm to shadowbox, break three inches of pine boards and toss around 72-pound ammunition cases like a bored contestant on the "World's Strongest Man."
The suit moves as he moves and amplifies his strength 17-fold. It doesn't fly though.
"You don't have this immense feeling of strength," Jameson says. "It's just when you go to do something that you couldn't do without it, then that's when you notice it."
Jameson is part of a team designing in real life what comic books and Hollywood have promised for years: bringing an "Iron Man"-like suit to the battlefield.
Raytheon is seeking to develop the suits to help the U.S. military carry supplies, and claims that one operator in an exoskeleton suit can do the work of two to three soldiers. If all goes as planned, the company hopes to see "Iron Man" suits deployed in the field by 2015.
"The logistics personnel in the military typically move 16,000 pounds a day, which is an awful lot of load," said Fraser Smith, vice president of operations for Raytheon Sarcos. The XOS-2 suit can be used in tight spaces where a forklift cannot.
And with the extra of strength the robot gives the operator, "that means you exert one pound, and it exerts 17. That's a major amplification of strength and that's all load the person doesn't have to carry themselves," Smith said.
Jameson may be about the furthest thing from the fictional designer of "Iron Man," playboy billionaire Tony Stark. "I roll in a minivan," said the married father of three.
The painted black, steel, aluminum and hydraulic pumps of the wearable robotic suit wrap around Jameson's slight frame, mirroring the human skeleton in form. Its structure runs up the side of Jameson's legs and arms. Its backbone carries the load of the machine, and on this day is tethered to hydraulic power and a team of engineers.
Jameson straps into the suit, stomps his feet into the exoskeleton's modified boots and straps down the snowboardlike bindings.
"I'd describe it as feeling like wearing a backpack -- a light pack -- and really big shoes. It kind of clomps around a bit," he said shortly after the power came on and the suit jerked to life.
"It reacts to the force of your feet, so you want it to react immediately," he added, pulling the bindings tight.
Jameson's hands grip actuators in a fist. Technicians can attach grips and hooks to the robot's hands, some of which look like they would be more useful for combat than for loading supplies.
Jameson said the response time from his movements to the robot reacting is less than 10 milliseconds. He marches around, balances on his tiptoes and kicks a soccer ball around. The peanut gallery at the edge of the parking lot loves it. A woman with a yogurt cup shakes her head in disbelief.
Raytheon's Smith also sees soldiers using the robot in a modified form -- from the waist down -- to help carry equipment and take the strain off their legs during long marches.
One big obstacle, however, is how to power the suit. Raytheon is working on reducing the energy load; the version demonstrated on this day runs off hydraulic power from the Sarcos shop. Smith said chemically powered batteries such as lithium ions are not powerful enough to run the suit for eight to 24 hours at a time.
Batteries also raise concerns over safety.
"If they get breached, they aren't gentle in the way they explode," Smith said. A single-cylinder gas or diesel-powered engine may do the trick instead, he said.
The wearable robotics suit is now in its second iteration. XOS-2 has all its wires and hydraulics fully enclosed, unlike the first prototype, whose innards were more exposed. That would be problematic in places such as Afghanistan or Iraq, where a sand-encrusted robot would mean a dead robot.
"Sand, water, mud are all things we like to keep out of the system, and these current [robotic suits] include sealing strategies that basically exclude them." Smith said.
While the suit has obvious military applications, Smith also sees broader commercial possibilities -- and a shorter timetable. He said if orders come in and production ramps up, within three years you could have your very own $150,000 "Iron Man" suit to help push boxes around your warehouse.
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