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Lockheed Martin awarded contract to test Iron Man-type exoskeletons

The movie “Iron Man” popularized the idea of a futuristic warfighter waging battle in a exoskeleton. The Defense Department recently procured two from Bethesda-based contractor Lockheed Martin for far more prosaic missions.

The lightweight, load-bearing exoskeletons will be used to assist the Navy’s ship maintenance crew in performing tasks that require heavy lifting. Lockheed has developed two exoskeleton suits, and the contract is to test and evaluate them, the company said. The suits will be tested on both coasts — one at Virginia’s own Norfolk Naval Shipyard and the other at Puget Sound Naval Shipyard in the state of Washington.

“Ship maintenance often requires use of heavy tools, such as grinders, riveters or sandblasters,” Adam Miller, director of new initiatives at Lockheed Martin Missiles and Fire Control, said. “By wearing the Fortis exoskeleton, operators can hold the weight of those heavy tools for extended periods of time with reduced fatigue.”

The Fortis exoskeleton, pictured below, resembles a motion-capture suit or a watered-down Iron Man costume. It can adapt to different heights and body-types, Lockheed says, and wearers can lift up to 36 pounds. Miller said the name ‘Fortis’ was taken from the Latin word for strength and endurance.

The contract was awarded under a program known as Commercial Technologies for Maintenance Activities, a partnership of the Defense Department and the National Center for Manufacturing Sciences, a nonprofit consortium that promotes manufacturing.

Lockheed has been developing the technology for the last five years, Miller said, but this is the first time the government has placed an order to try its product. Although this will be tested by the Navy first, the contract is also an opportunity to “mature and transition” exoskeleton technology for use by the Defense Department, he said.

This isn’t the first example of a superhero concept being used for military application.

Last summer, the U.S. Special Operations Command showcased its own Iron Man-inspired armor called the Tactical Assault Light Operator Suit, or TALOS. SOCOM has called for demonstrations to develop the technology for the suit.

Unlike Fortis, the TALOS program is aimed at battlefield-specific applications. Lockheed Martin is working with SOCOM separately in that regard, Miller said.

Here’s a video introducing the concept in pure video-game style, complete with a dramatic soundtrack:

And here’s a demonstration of prototypes in July 2013: