Issue Date: June 2, 2008
"So how long do you think it will take the military to start developing an Iron Man suit?" I asked my moviegoing companion while exiting the premiere of "Iron Man."
"I bet you it's already in the works," he replied.
He was right.
In the film "Iron Man," Robert Downey Jr. plays genius inventor, womanizer, and alcoholic Tony Stark, who runs a company that builds and sells deadly weapons for the military. Stark is kidnapped in Afghanistan while testing a new supermissile and is forced
to build one of these new missiles for the enemy. Instead, he builds a flame-throwing, mountain-crushing exoskeleton, making him part Incredible Hulk, part Terminator.
The U.S. military has dreamt of exoskeletons and similar SUPERHUMAN BODY ARMOR since the 1960s, right around the time Marvel comics debuted the Iron Man character. For 40 years, it looked as though the suit would remain comic book fodder.
But in 2000, according to a recent Popular Science article, the Pentagon's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) funded Stephen C. Jacobsen and the engineers at Sarcos with millions under a program called Exoskeletons for Human Performance Augmentation. Jacobsen started Sarcos, a robotics company recently purchased by military defense company Raytheon, in 1983.
DARPA wanted to build a suit that would seemingly turn ordinary people into superheroes. It would allow a single soldier to haul hundreds of pounds while hiking for days without fatigue; carry an injured soldier easily, perhaps for miles; use weapons normally designed for two people; and be impenetrable to bullets and shrapnel.
Now, after eight years of development and multiple versions of the suit, dubbed XOS, the Army plans to field-test the latest model by 2009. Jacobsen and Sarcos haven't met all the seemingly far-fetched goals DARPA envisioned for the suit, but they have accomplished enough to warrant a two-year, $10 million Army grant to move XOS into the development stage.
Sarcos still has some bugs to work out: The development team hasn't figured out how to efficiently power XOS. According to Popular Science, the current model is tied to a hydraulic pump that draws power from an external supply. XOS can operate on batteries, but only for 40 minutes at a time. Neither power method would prove sufficiently worthwhile in the middle of battle.
But the Sarcos team is working on it. This summer, in conjunction with an engine design firm, Popular Science reports, the company plans to launch a research program in hopes of developing a generator capable of powering XOS for hours.
XOS isn't the only robotic exoskeleton show in town, however. Japan's Cyberdyne is currently developing a white storm-trooper-looking suit for medical purposes. Called the Robot Suit Hybrid Assistive Limb (HAL), the exoskeleton will help doctors and physical therapists better assist disabled people by enhancing the user's physical strength 10-fold.
According to Scientific American, the suit weighs just over 50 lb and is powered by a 100-V battery that lasts up to five hours. HAL is further along in development than the U.S. XOS. Beginning in October, Cyberdyne is expected to mass-produce up to 500 suits annually. The HAL exoskeleton is available only in Japan and cannot be purchased. But Cyberdyne will rent one to you for $1,300 per month, including maintenance and upgrades.
To see the U.S. military's XOS suit in action and to get a full explanation of the mechanics, visit www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zp6S-gPxnbM.
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