The top weapons buyer for U.S. Special Operations Command said Wednesday that the so-called Iron Man suit being developed for elite commandos may not end up being the exoskeleton armored ensemble popular in adventure movies.
It's been four years since SOCOM leaders challenged the defense industry to come up with ideas for the Tactical Assault Light Operator Suit, or TALOS -- an ensemble that would provide operators with "more-efficient, full-body ballistics protection and beyond-optimal human performance" as well as embedded sensors and communications tech for heightened situational awareness.
Program officials are about "a year and a half" away from having a TALOS prototype that's ready to put in the hands of operators for testing, James "Hondo" Geurts, acquisition executive and director for SOF AT&l at USSOCOM, told an audience at the National Defense Industrial Association's Annual Special Operations/Low Intensity Conflict Symposium.
When the program began, it captured the public's imagination and conjured images of high-tech ensembles worn in movies such as "Man of Steel," "Pacific Rim" and "Starship Troopers."
"We are on our fifth prototype," Geurts said. "Will we get everything we want? Probably not. That was never the intent."
SOCOM officials envisioned TALOS would feature integrated heaters and coolers to regulate the temperature inside the suit. Embedded sensors would monitor the operator's core body temperature, skin temperature, heart rate, body position and hydration levels. In the event that the operator is wounded, the suit could feasibly start administering the first life-saving oxygen or hemorrhage controls.
This is not the first time the U.S. military has embarked on an effort to perfect smart-soldier technology. The Army is now equipping combat units with a secure, smartphone-based kit -- known as Nett Warrior -- that allows a leader to track subordinates' locations in relation to his own position via icons on a digital map. The unit leaders can view satellite imagery and send text messages.
The technology has seen combat and given leaders a precise view of their tactical environment, empowering units to operate more decisively than ever before.
But the program's success did not come easily. Land Warrior, the first generation of this computerized command-and-control ensemble, was plagued by failure. From its launch in 1996, the Army spent $500 million on three major contract awards before the system's reliability problems were solved in 2006.
When TALOS began, SOCOM said it planned to funnel $80 million into research and development over a four-year timeline. Geurts did not say how much money SOCOM has spent so far on TALOS.
One of the biggest challenges is powering the suit, but also a type of control theory and deep learning, Geurts said.
In just walking, "we take for granted that when we put our arm out, that our foot is behind us to balance it," he said.
Geurts said the program has had "tremendous hurdles" working with these technologies, but said the effort will likely result in spin-off technologies that can be fielded to operators before TALOS is operationally ready.
"So in TALOS, don't just think exoskeleton and armor -- think of the whole equation," he said. "Survivability is part of what armor you are carrying, but it's also a big part of whatever information you have, what is your situational awareness, how do you communicate. So as we are going down all those paths, we can leverage quickly some of the stuff that is ready to go right now."