While "Iron Man 2" sees release on Tuesday on DVD and Blu-ray, modern science is well on its way to creating exosuits not unlike the type seen in the film. CBR News was at the Raytheon Sarcos facility in Salt Lake City last week to see the unveiling of Raytheon's second generation robotic exo-skeleton, which they have dubbed the XOS 2. The suit extends the operator's endurance and strength.
The company specializes in defense technology and is working with governments throughout the world. The XOS project is an attempt to answer a basic military personnel issue. Modern soldiers wear a surprising amount of gear into combat situations. "The backpacks are getting heavier," explained Frasier Smith, vice president of operations at Raytheon Sarcos. "They also have a collection of gear that [the military would] like the person to carry to increase their survivability." Each item - ordinance, survival packs - comes with a weight penalty to the soldier. "So there is this battle going on about how much you can burden the guy with where it doesn't start being deleterious," continued Smith. "The whole point of [the soldier] using the lower extremity was to abate the need to carry a 200 hundred pound backpack, and now you have that penalty associated with carrying that stuff." The suit, when it reaches its deployment stage, will carry the brunt of that weight for the combat solider. "The person can walk with [the XOS 2] all day and not get fatigued," he said of the eventual combat suit.
The current project also offers other applications for the suit. Smith referred to the version they were displaying as the "logistics version." This model would be geared toward the heavy lifting of ammunition and other equipment that goes into day to day operations. In field situations, soldiers often deal with those loads the old fashioned way. "Those guys are typically moving 16,000 pounds a day. That's a pretty outrageous amount of weight for a person to be lifting," Smith said. "And, of course, they have injuries. So the idea is to try to mitigate that as much as possible. So, that's what started the project with DARPA [the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency]. They had a broad agency announcement to try and address this business."
Raytheon has been addressing this problem for eight years, but Smith says the process of making the system more complete and advanced never stops. "It's just like cars; as the years go by, they keep making a more 'wind-tunnel friendly' [design] and increasing the efficiency," he explained. "We're at the beginning of the process, so you see bigger increments in the steps that you take."
For Clark Gregg, the actor who plays S.H.I.E.L.D Agent Phil Coulson in "Iron Man 2," the results of the process so far are staggering to behold. "I didn't know what to expect," he said of his reaction when he first saw the XOS 2. "I didn't know if we were going to come in and see some kind of giant freight moving version of the thing that Sigourney Weaver wore in 'Aliens.'" While that popular conception of the mobile suit as seen in "Avatar" or anime like "Gundam" still prevails in the general mindset, the XOS 2 is far more contained. "This is much more nimble and very much clearly a stepping stone to something that's going to be in use with contemporary soldiers in, I would guess, the next ten or twenty years if not sooner."
When it is deployed, Smith expects a variety of specials XOS suits to be utilized for different, specialized tasks. "One of the analogies we like to use is that they're like cars and trucks; you have specific ones for specific applications. We would expect the same sort of assortment of exoskeletons for different environments and venues." He went on to detail a possible version to bear the weight of armor. "That's extra now. On a typical solider, when they have a jacket that contains ceramic armor, there is about ten pounds on each piece - they're wearing four of those. It's a pretty heavy thing to have on," he said of current conditions. "It would be nice if the exoskeleton incorporated that and they wouldn't have to be carrying [the weight] themselves."
Currently, one of the big benchmarks for the system is reducing its power consumption. "We're at fifty percent now of what XOS 1 [needed], we have a target at twenty percent. So, we're still en route to addressing that issue," he stated.
Smith went on to describe one of their other goals, including, "Making it more environmentally resistant - sealing it against water intrusion, dirt, sand, all that kind of stuff - those are goals you're out to solve. You'll always see it get more and more enclosed." That, in addition to getting the most performance out of a single charge, is part of a larger initiative for the suit. "What ends up being the long term goal is establishing the reliability of the system so that, for instance, you don't have to have safety tethers and that sort of thing. Those are sort of the standard collection of issues you would deal with [on equipment] that interfaces with a human."
Gregg actually had an opportunity to try on the XOS 2 with its power turned off. Even in that state, the suit is fairly easy to move in. Calling it "a strange experience," the actor mention he asked Rex Jameson, who provided the event's suit demonstrations, how it feels when powered up. "He says it's just like wearing heavy sneakers and a backpack. It responds to his body's movements. It's just kind of incredible," he related. Looking at the XOS 1, brought out for comparison, the actor considered both the advancement of technology and the organic machine it is trying to emulate and accentuate. "You see how much intricate hydraulics and technology are on these things and you realize, again, how incredible the physics of the human body are when you see someone attempt to replicate them with the most cutting edge technology that exists today."
"Iron Man 2" arrives on DVD and Blu-ray Tuesday September 28th, 2010