The idea of an exoskeleton in a military application conjures up images of a digital cammie robocop, perhaps; and one day we may treat "exos" the same way we treat body armor. But the nearer-term utility of exoskeletons are somewhat less glamorous.
In 2007 the U.S. Army Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center assumed responsibility for the management of the Exoskeleton project from DARPA. The Natick project is currently funded through FY 2009 and its goals are as follows:
1) In conjunction with the U.S. Army Combined Arms Support Command, develop a set of performance specifications for a full body Exoskeleton that will be the basis for a requirement for a version of the Exoskeleton that can assist Soldiers in accomplishing physically demanding tasks associated with loading and unloading supplies and heavy materiel, and performing vehicle maintenance.
2) Improve the human interface, biomechanical efficiency and ergonomic acceptability of the Exosketeton.3) Develop compact, portable, efficient, safe power sources.
4) Reduce the cost and ruggedize the system.5) Demonstrate reliability and safey for use by Soldiers.
During my recent visit to Natick, Exo-czars Jeffrey Schiffman and David Audet explained that they were focused on helping Soldiers make repetitive tasks like loading boxes on racks and rolling oil drums up ramps easier. They also have a vision of assisting Air Force and Navy ordies with loading missiles and bombs. Whereas it might take four guys to lift, say, a Sidewinder missile onto an F-16's wingtip station, an Exoskeleton would allow the same task to be performed by one guy.
Schiffman and Audet allowed that their main concerns right now were power sources and safety backup modes if the Exoskeleton suffers a mechanical failure. (Not a good thing if you're the ordie holding a Sidewinder, for instance.)
But otherwise Natick (in coordination with contractors like Sarcos and Raytheon) has the test plan on track. So maintainers and loggies everywhere take heart. Help for that aching back is on the way.
(Photo: John B. Carnett / POPULAR SCIENCE MAGAZINE)-- Ward