In a world where technology is at the forefront of most major fields, exoskeletons seem to be on the way to becoming the future of everyday life. From giving mobility back, to enhancing human strength, to complete jobs, more and more these devices are becoming relevant. Another area that has been researching and developing exoskeleton systems is military and defense. Reducing the impact on a soldier’s body during combat, increasing mobility on the battlefield, and aiding in carrying gear are some of the biggest concerns being addressed. Helping soldiers increase their ability to avoid injuries due to extreme stress faced every day will potentially reduce casualty rates. Currently, the three major areas being researched are infantry, logistics, and support.
In a report requesting concept papers for exoskeleton technologies, the Office of the Secretary of Defense and the Department of Defense listed nine significant expectations for combat use. Some of these include the ability to walk, ascend, descend, and crawl while carrying loads of gear close to one hundred pounds. The ability to unload equipment from trucks and performing repairs to trucks and aircraft were also on the list. A few others listed include enhancing close quarter combat, improving fighting stances, and carrying wounded allies of close to three hundred pounds.
Some of the areas listed under the infantry exoskeletons include enhancing mobility and endurance during both combat and for reaching destinations in non-combat situations. The five tasks exoskeletons will enhance include moving, protecting, shooting, communicating, and sustaining. For logistics, the focus is put on load movability, lifting, carrying, and possible tool compatibility. These abilities would allow for a single person to carry out tasks that previously required multiple people to complete, increasing production as well as ergonomics. Specialized capabilities have a focus on awareness, lethality, explosive removal, and chemical protection. These would be focused upon specific tasks and catered to the situations the soldiers would be facing in those circumstances.
This document was submitted in January of 2018 with a focus on receiving replies from companies by March of the same year. It also outlined the specifics of system types, depending on the tasks it could achieve, as well as expecting a Technology Readiness Level (TRL) of at least “TRL 4” to be considered (view TRL chart at the bottom of the article). As of May 2019, two major firms are working with the U.S. Army Natick Soldier Research, Development, and Engineering Center (NSRDEC) to provide exoskeletons to soldiers. The first is Lockheed Martin and their Onyx system, which is a lower-body exoskeleton. This exoskeleton helps enhance human operations while decreasing fatigue and injury to soldiers. The Onyx has only undergone minor tests in the field but has plans of undergoing intense field operations.
The second exoskeleton is from Dephy and is called the Exo-Boot. It is focused on the ankle and foot by creating support. While this is not a full-body suit, which is the main focus, it would be more accessible at an earlier stage for actual field use. The Exo-Boot would mean being able to provide systems to soldiers sooner while other systems are still being developed for full-body support. This exoskeleton would be an ideal way to apply the systems to troops as early support until a more advanced system is available.
A few full-body suits are being developed and tested from numerous companies with Lockheed Martin, Raytheon/Sarcos, USSOCOM, DSTO, and Wyss Institute/DARPA at the helm. The Human Universal Load Carrier (HULC) from Lockheed Martin will allow the user to remove it in under 30 seconds, lift loads of up to 200lbs without stress on the soldier’s body, as well as the ability to move at enhanced speeds. Other features include attachments such as armor, cooling and heating, and sensors.
In March of 2019, USSOCOM signed a deal with Sarcos Robotics for their Guardian XO robotic exoskeleton. It is said to give the user the strength of a forklift and features swappable battery packs, a first for the field. The eight-hour battery life, coupled with changeable batteries increases the usability of this exoskeleton. Sarcos Robotics has also signed contracts with both the U.S Navy and Air Force for the Guardian XO suit.
This exciting news shows the promising future of the exoskeleton field as well as new and improving applications to enhancing the world around us.