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Why Military Exoskeletons Will Remain Science Fiction

Why Military Exoskeletons Will Remain Science Fiction

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From Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers to Marvel’s Ironman, science fiction is full of futuristic combat suits that provide a soldier with superhuman capabilities. The largest challenge with bringing these combat suits into reality is the robotic exoskeleton on which the suit is built. Indeed, the military industrial complex has a massive graveyard of exoskeleton projects.

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The latest combat suit project, the Tactical Assault Light Operator Suit (TALOS), intended to build an exoskeleton that could increase the amount of armor carried by a Special Forces operator.  Though the TALOS project turned out numerous spin-off technologies, it ultimately failed to produce a suit, citing the standard set of technical challenges associated with exoskeleton development efforts.

The first technical challenge is related to sensing – how can the suit know when and how to move? Without rapid sensing, the lag between the operator desiring to move and the actual movement results in the operator feeling like they are moving through a pool of Jell-O.

A second challenge is associated with actuation. Although actuating a knee is straightforward, more complex joints, such as hips and ankles, require very advanced, multi-dimensional actuators. Even the most advanced actuators would still limit the full range of motion for these joints, resulting in a decrease in agility.

The final technical challenge is with power. An exoskeleton requires power on par with a small motorcycle. Though a number of power alternatives are available, engines would be too noisy, fuel cells would be too hot, and batteries would be too heavy. Additionally, most power sources are very flammable or explosive, resulting in safety issues.

With each exoskeleton attempt, the military industrial complex has gotten closer to solving these technical hurdles, especially as the commercial sector makes new developments in the associated fields. In particular, the prosthetics community has made tremendous advances in biomechanical sensing. Additionally, numerous players in the consumer product sector are working to develop smarter and more advanced motors. Further, a large portion of the world’s research and development efforts is focused on energy, so lighter and safer power options will soon be available.

However, at its core, these technical challenges will not be the issue that precludes exoskeletons from combat. While science fiction paints an optimistic vision for exoskeletons, history paints a less rosy picture. Take, for example, the Battle of Agincourt, where a large contingent of French knights in suits of armor lost to a small group of British archers.

History indicates that there are two critical factors that all new technologies must account for – logistics and enemy reactions. Unfortunately, exoskeletons have shortcomings in both areas.

For the suit to be effective, it must be worn by a large number of soldiers, so the defense community would need to procure a large number of these suits. However, while most uniform items come in standard sizes, each exoskeleton must be custom fit to its user. Additionally, the exoskeleton must adapt as the user’s body changes. Any misalignment between the actuators and joints could render the suit useless and potentially dangerous. The resources associated with making and sustaining a large number of custom suits would be astronomical, while also creating a logistical nightmare.

Second, enemies will adapt to any new technology injected into the battlefield.  The complexity of a combat suit lends itself to many vulnerabilities, with the largest weakness being the person inside the suit. In the comic books, Ironman can be thrown around and survive; however, basic physics would dictate that the sudden acceleration and deceleration should crush his internal organs, killing him. Though the suit can be built to survive significant blasts and being thrown tremendous distances, the user inside of it would likely still be killed. The logical approach to counter these issues is to take the human out of the suit, which in turn takes away the need for an exoskeleton.

Certain technologies have changed the face of warfare and gave their users an unprecedented advantage. These technologies range from bronze swords to machine guns to submarines, many of which had roots in science fiction. However, despite these successes, some technologies are best left in the realm of fiction. One such futuristic concept is exoskeletons. Time and time again, the defense community has failed to produce functional exoskeletons due to technical challenges. Although these challenges will likely be solved by the commercial sector, the use of exoskeletons have fundamental issues that will likely preclude their usage in combat.

 

This article was written by Vikram Mittal from Forbes and was legally licensed through the Industry Dive publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to legal@industrydive.com.

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