The summer's hottest blockbuster thus far has been Iron Man -- not even the runaway hit Grand Theft Auto IV could slow it down. The movie centers around a super hero using a high tech suit to perform heroic feats no ordinary man could. What's intriguing is just how close real life technology is to creating a slightly less insanely overpowered "Iron Man" suit.
In the first entry of a two part series, this article examines the developments in exoskeleton technology from an enterprising startup recently acquired by a major defense contractor. The exoskeleton starts with a simple concept -- while large war machines like tanks and armored personnel carriers (APCs) are mighty weapons, they lack the maneuverability of ground soldiers and provide a large target. However, ground soldiers lack the strength to carry sufficient stopping power to take on heavy vehicles.
Sarcos Inc. has taken this concept and run with it, producing a mature exoskeleton design that may just possibly lead to the first real life "Iron Man" suit. Sarcos comes from a decidedly non-militaristic background of designing robots for "Jurassic Park" rides at the Universal Studios theme park. However, the contractor quickly morphed into a military contractor embarking on an exciting new project -- the Sarcos Suit.
While athletic, Sarcos engineer Rex Jameson, standing at 5'11" is no superman. While he can press a modest 200 lbs on a good day, his strength is by no means superhuman. Until he puts on the Sarcos Suit that is. Gripping the claw-like hand guides of the exoskeleton, Jameson recently ripped off dozens of 500 lb presses at a recent demonstration of the suit.
The stunned audience eventually got bored, because Jameson just wasn't stopping, it was far too easy. Says Jameson, "Everyone gets bored much more quickly than I get tired."
The experience proved an exciting demo of the 150 lb suit's potential to give the soldier of the future superpowers. The U.S. Army, which is funding Sarcos, hopes that the technology will be used on the battlefield. It has given Sarcos a $10 million, two-year contract to develop the suit. Initial applications will be off the battlefield and will include heavy lifting and cargo operations.
The suit works on a basic level by detecting the user's every movement and amplifying it. The suit currently has a rather impressive 30 minute battery life, and can operate indefinitely tethered to a power cord. Sarcos hopes to extend the battery life so that the suit can operate for longer periods of time on the battlefield. They also hope to bring down the cost, which is currently rather high.
Stephen Jacobsen, chief designer of the Sarcos suit, says that human muscle movement amplification, a frequent comic fantasy, has become a reality. He states, "Everybody likes the idea of being a superhero, and this is all about expanding the capabilities of a human."
While the army started exoskeleton research as early as 1995, the Sarcos suit is the first major success to date. The suit so impressed Waltham, Massachusetts-based defense contracting giant Raytheon, that it bought Sarcos Inc. this past November.
Jack Obusek, a former colonel now employed in the Army's Soldier Research Development and Engineering Center, foresees the suits initially providing invaluable support. From loading heavy ammo crates, to fixing tanks in the battlefield that would otherwise have to be scrapped to prevent American tank from falling into enemy hands, the potential is enormous he feels.
Jacobsen adds that the technology may also serve home-front uses, helping construction workers build, helping firemen carry gear inside burning houses, and helping disabled people move more freely. Jacobsen states, "We see the value being realized when these suits can be built in great numbers for both military and commercial uses, and they start coming down in cost to within the range of the price of a small car."
While Jacobsen declines to estimate an exact price for the mass-produced version of the suit, the "price of a small car" comment seems exciting indeed. However, certainly such a possibility would raise questions of restrictions, as having a host of super-power endowed citizens might lead to dangerous possibilities.
Meanwhile Sarcos is concentrating on the power issue. While noisy, Sarcos says a gas engine is one possibility. A small gas engine could fit inside the suits backpack, they say. Obusek states, "The power issue is probably the No. 1 challenge standing in the way of getting this thing in the field."
Obusek says that while fine-tuning is still needed, the good news is Sarcos seems to have overcome the challenge of amplifying muscle movements by pairing super-fast microprocessors to detect joint movement with powerful mechanics. The system processes its data in a central computer and then actuates powerful hydraulic valves, which mimics the human body's tendons in a natural, but powered up movement.
The suit lags slightly behind human response times. Obusek states, "With all the previous attempts at this technology, there has been a slight lag time between the intent of the human, and the actual movement of the machine."
In a demonstration, Jameson was able to bounce a soccer ball off his helmeted head, punch a punching bag (not as fast as a boxer, but at a reasonable pace), and slowly ascend a flight of stairs.
Jameson says the suit takes a bit of getting used to. He states, "It feels less agile than it is. Because of the way the control laws work, it's ever so slightly slower than I am. And because we are so in tune with our bodies' responses, this tiny delay initially made me tense."
However, he quickly adapted and has discovered that the human body uses the suit in unforeseen ways. He explains, "I can regain my balance naturally after stumbling -- something I discovered completely by accident. It takes no special training, beyond learning to relax and trust the robot."
While the suit can't fly, it could certainly lug some impressive firepower on the battlefield someday with a few modifications. As to the flying, stay tuned for part two of making a real life "Iron Man".