Lockheed Martin’s FORTIS suit is designed to allow users to effortlessly carry heavy machinery and tools, company officials say. (Lockheed Martin photo)

It’s no secret that U.S. armed forces are working on high-tech robotic suits, known as exosuits, to enhance the average service member’s capabilities and develop the military’s very own Iron Man. But while many are excited about the potential of an army of Tony Starks vanquishing the free world’s enemies, a new report by the Center for a New American Security suggests exosuits have unrecognized potential when it comes to humanitarian assistance and ship-based operations.

The 28-page report,titled “Between Iron Man and Aqua Man: Exosuit Opportunities in Maritime Operations,” suggests that exosuits technology will be available within five years and could greatly benefit U.S. maritime operations. It finds that “damage control is the application with the greatest opportunity for capability enhancement and that use in deck operations and maintenance would provide major cost savings.”

The report’s authors, Navy Lt. Scott Cheney-Peters and Andrew Herr, come with vested interests in the subject. Cheney-Peters is a surface warfare officer in the Navy Reserve. Herr is the chief executive of Mind Plus Matter, a human performance consulting firm, and Helicase, a technology consultancy.

But the two view exosuits as the way of the future – technology that will allow sailors to do more with less on ships that are damaged, repairing and resupplying at sea. Imagine a shipping container overturning in rough seas, or a fire below decks. Instead of having teams of people or large pieces of equipment deployed, one or two sailors outfitted with specifically equipped exosuits could do the job.

“More importantly, the benefits from accelerating these functions would only increase during military operations getting ships back to the fight sooner is particularly valuable,” the report says.

Aside from ship-based operations, Herr and Cheney-Peters highlight the potential of exosuits in humanitarian missions and expeditionary base construction. They technology could play an integral role in moving large amounts of equipment and providing support during operations that might be strapped for resources.

Implementing exosuits as a force multiplier, however, could also have drawbacks. Unpredictable ship movements at sea, rust in saltwater environments and the need for a constant power supply would possibly push the Navy to modify aspects of their fleet and operating procedures to accommodate suits on ship and for shore-based operations.

“In addition to tailoring suits to naval applications it may eventually become worth to subtly tailor ship design to improve exosuit effectiveness,” the report says.

To control costs, the report suggests the implementation of a single type of exosuit that could be outfitted for various missions. Its development program, the authors say, could be led by the Navy, possibly in conjunction with the Coast Guard.

“If the Navy tries to jointly develop a suit with the Army, it will likely be burdened with the cost of the requirements necessitated by operating in a land environment away from reliable power sources, almost certainly skewering the cost-benefit analysis against this promising technology for maritime applications.”

Previously on Checkpoint:

Meet the exoskeleton the Navy is testing to make sailors stronger

New competition launched in development of the U.S. military’s ‘Iron Man’ suit