With Iron Man now one of the most well-known superheroes in the world, thanks to two successful movies – the second of which is released on DVD and Blu-ray tomorrow – what better time to unveil the closest thing real life has to Tony Stark’s famous suit of armor? That’s the thinking that took me to Salt Lake City last week, to see the unveiling of Raytheon Company’s second generation Exoskeleton, or XOS2.
While it doesn’t fly yet – or at least, not on purpose, as the technicians joked – the XOS2 amplifies its users strength seventeen times, allowing them to easily lift 200 pounds several hundred times without tiring, or punch through three inches of wood with ease. Raytheon started working on the project after a request from Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, according to Raytheon Sarcos VP of operations Fraser Smith:
We’ve been working on it for about eight years. This got started mostly because of the need that the military has for lightening the soldiers’ load. It’s a big deal, both from the point of view of the size of the backpacks that they carry, and also the logistics support that’s basically mandatory for all of the operations that people carry out. So, on both sides of that problem, there’s the need for an answer to that problem, to enable people to carry more in the field and logistically transport things to the field, preferably with fewer people.
The prototype shown during the demo was aimed at logistic usage, one of two variants being worked on by the company, Smith explained:
There’s the combat variant that is targeted towards carrying the 200lb pack, that would basically be oriented at lightening the soldiers’ load. That one is energetically autonomous. And then there’s the logistics application, which is basically a tethered application, where you don’t have to worry about power because it’s coming from somewhere else – either a truck that’s nearby, or a tank, or a ship, that kind of thing. We view the logistics variant as being the more likely one to go forward, because the energy problem hasn’t been totally solved yet, and we’re still working on it. We’ve gotten it down to about 50% of the consumption of [the first generation], and yet, it’s stronger by a significant amount, it’s lighter and more graceful. So it’s going in the right direction. The target is to get down to about 20%. At that point, we feel confident that we can make an internal combustion engine/hydraulic power supply combination that would be able to go eight hours without a refill on fuel. That’s really the brass ring of energetic autonomy. Until that time, there are plenty of applications within the logistics area for lifting loads, and we’d like to address those first.
Still years away from being rolled out in the field – Smith says that, in addition to reducing power consumption, other areas to address include making it more protected from the environment (Another area in which the XOS2 is significantly improved from its predecessor, with the hydraulic routing and onboard computers contained within the structure) – Raytheon is already considering non-military applications for the technology. Smith again:
You would potentially be able to use this as a prosthetic device, you could use it in manufacturing, there are big problems all over the place in respect to people having to pick up heavy pieces – shipyards is one example, construction is another, hospitals, moving people around. All of those are viable areas to look at on the commercial side… Once we’ve gotten a working device as funded by the military, we would start looking at commercial applications that could benefit.
Watching the suit being demoed by test pilot Rex Jameson was a surreal experience; the suit sounds like Robocop as it moves, but Jameson had no problem moving inside it, and even less lifting missiles, 200lb weights or whatever as often as was asked of him. When powered, the suit’s motors actually reduce opposing force to the wearer’s action, making it seem essentially weightless… and making it that much easier to punch through however many planks of wood you ask for without breaking a sweat.
The best part of the whole visit, of course, was right at the end, when I was given the chance to actually try on the XOS2. Even though they didn’t power it up – Understandably, because I wouldn’t let me be in charge of something that powerful either – it was a thrill to try out the suit for myself, and imagine being Tony Stark, even if only for a second or so. There’s a reason I have such a stupid grin in that photo, you know.
Until you can live the dream for yourself, Iron Man 2 is released on DVD and Blu-ray tomorrow.
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