The U.S. military has been dabbling for years in how it can make troops stronger, faster and safer in combat. There is no better example of that than U.S. Special Operations Command’s push to develop a high-tech armored exoskeleton reminiscent of “Iron Man,” the comic book hero brought to life on the silver screen over the last decade by Robert Downey Jr.
The military isn’t just researching exoskeletons for the military’s most hair-raising missions, though. As a research project now underway in the U.S. Navy illustrates, military officials are considering ways they could help troops carry out more mundane skills ranging from moving boxes to welding pipes on ships.
Defense contractor Lockheed Martin recently provided two exoskeletons to the U.S. Navy for testing through the the National Center for Manufacturing Science, company officials said. The FORTIS suit allows those wearing it to carry more and work longer by transferring the weight they are carrying directly to the ground through a series of braces that wrap around an operator’s arms, legs and back. Those wearing it can hold up to 36 pounds effortlessly, company officials say.
The goals for the FORTIS suit aren’t nearly as lofty as those for the Special Operations Command “Iron Man” suit, known in the military as the Tactical Assault Light Operator Suit, or TALOS. But it could potentially be fielded much more quickly. Retiring Adm. William McRaven, the outgoing commander of SOCOM, said earlier this year that the single largest hurdle thus far in the “Iron Man” suit has been integrating power into it so troops can move. It isn’t expected to be fielded any sooner than 2018.
“Obviously if you’re going to put a man in a suit — or a woman in a suit — and be able to walk with that exoskeleton… you’ve got to have power,” McRaven said in February. “You can’t have power hooked up to some giant generator.”
That isn’t an issue for the FORTIS suit. It doesn’t require a power source, and simply shifts the weight a service member is carrying out of his or her hands.
As Navy Times points out, the FORTIS suit isn’t the only exoskeleton program the military is considering that sets the bar a bit lower than TALOS. One other example is the Human Universal Load Carrier, or HULC suit. Also designed by Lockheed, it uses hydraulics to take weight off the back of a infantryman carrying a heavy combat load, and has been in testing by the Army Natick Soldier Systems Center. It doesn’t require power, and allows those wearing it to carry up to 200 pounds for extended periods of time, company officials say.