Cyborg Armor: The Exoskeleton Suit for Soldiers of the Future

Cyborg Armor

Imagine a world where soldiers will have cyborg exoskeleton armor that will give them increased physical and mental performance. 

The Warrior Web program, funded by the U.S. Department of Defense, is developing a suit that will allow future soldiers to carry heavier load, stay active longer, and reserve more energy for important cognitive processing while deployed. The exoskeleton suit has specific gears in place to lower the chances of physical injuries to the wearer’s muscles and bones. 

There are various prototypes of the suit, but it is essentially a soft robotic armor that the wearer can put on like an article of clothing. This 16-pound suit would then provide a “nudge” after each muscle movement.

This nudge will take the form of a mechanical force at certain joints while running or lifting your shoulders to bear more weight off your body. After you take the suit off, you will be able to notice the comparable difference from no longer receiving that extra nudge or physical assistance with your body movements. 

Although it may be difficult to imagine soldiers wearing this as part of their uniform, the suit is made with durable textiles that are worn on the legs while being powered by wires that are controlled by a mobile actuation unit. This unit can be attached at the wearer’s waist or attached to a military backpack. There could also be a possibility of expanding this technology to allow the elderly to go about their daily lives without any physical assistance while walking or lifting.

The U.S. Army Research Laboratory has been prototyping different variations of the suit for more than five years in the Soldier Performance and Equipment Advanced Research (SPEAR) center. While the engineers have been working on primarily improving the suit’s strength capabilities, they are hoping this will allow soldiers to have more energy to put into their mental performance.

Originally, the Warrior Web program was funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which has a large community of partnering organizations in higher academia as well as the Department of Defense. 

The program manager of the Warrior Web program, Major Christopher Orlowski, believes the exoskeleton suits will need to be integrated into more advanced, connected systems in the future to create an advantage for soldiers. He believes that within the next ten years, the exoskeleton suit will have gone through enough prototyping to be ready for use by infantry soldiers. 

The team had been working with researchers from Harvard University, led by Dr. Conor Walsh, who was able to provide guidance on testing the suit as well as offering feedback for design. This unique usage of technology as well as biodesign could potentially save lives with its ability to essentially take extra weight off of the wearer’s body. 

Of course, the researchers are capturing and analyzing the data collected from soldiers while they perform physical activities with the suits on. For example, they were conducting tests with an indoor lab where they could gather data on treadmills, body motions, and other forms of physical activity. This will allow the engineers to make important decisions about the design of future prototypes.

Working directly with the end user has significant benefits to the team, as they are able to gather continuous feedback to push towards the future of military technology. This wearable technology could be one of the most significant Internet of Things (IOT) devices to be created and tested by the U.S. military to date. 

The suit was also tested by soldiers who embarked on a 12-mile hike, which allowed the team to develop a new tuning method that could optimally enhance the force applied on each individual’s body movements. Based on this experiment, the research team found that the suit reduced the physical and metabolic cost of walking by about 15%. This tuning method could eventually be used as a way to measure energy consumption by the wearer over longer periods of time. 

This is a perfect example of the agile methodology, often used in application development, where the engineers are working directly with soldiers for feedback on the looks and functionalities of the suit. In the long term, this will definitely be beneficial towards a more effective transition of encouraging soldiers to try these futuristic exoskeleton suits. 

The team recently presented a study of the suit at the 2018 IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation (ICRA). Through steady improvements, they were able to create an end product that is lighter, more compact, and quieter than the earlier versions while still being able to accommodate various body types. 

The suit’s control system allows for the team to apply stronger forces at different joints across the wearer’s body to create a consistent and enhanced experience. They were able to create an integrated system that is compatible with the suit to allow for improved functioning attachments, actuation systems, as well as control logistics that adapt to each soldier. 

It is also important to note that there are various subtypes and versions of the exoskeleton suit being made, specifically one created by Raytheon, a leading technology company that focuses on defense and cybersecurity innovation. 

The team at Raytheon was able to create a suit that could lift up to 200 pounds in payload capacity while using high-pressure hydraulics. This provides the wearer the ability to lift heavy objects repeatedly without physical strain or injury.

While the exoskeleton suit is still under development, the opportunities to improve the lives of not only soldiers but those with physical disabilities or reduced physical movements are limitless. For example, this technology could allow for someone who is in their mid-60s to become more active and open doors for so many others. 

One day, these suits could be the key to improving the lives of people with physical disadvantages all around the world, as well as potentially living up to every kid’s dream of being a “cyborg”.

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