'Iron Man' Exoskeletons Go Soft


Forget Iron Man armor and exoskeletons. They're so last year. This season, augmenting human strength has moved to stretchable, flexible suits.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has shelled out $2.6 million to Harvard's Wyss Institute of Biologically Inspired Engineering to build a "smart suit" that enhances the strength of soldiers in the field.

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The amount of gear that the average trooper has to carry — in addition to the body armor — has gone up in the past few years. The modern soldier has a lot of sophisticated equipment now, but that stuff is also pretty heavy. So it's no surprise that the military is interested in boosting the amount of time that a person can carry all that stuff.

Thus far, most designs for exoskeletons, such as Raytheon's XOS, or the Human Universal Load Carrier, have relied on rigid struts and require a lot of power to operate. That's a big limiting factor — a soldier wouldn't want to be on a long hike in Afghanistan and have the batteries run out. Also, the suits aren't (yet) as flexible and easy to use as a lot of military planners would like.

The Wyss Institute design takes a different approach. Instead of using rigid systems to simply boost strength, the smart suit relies on soft, stretchable sensors that detect fatigue. To help a person maintain their posture, the suit might give a small vibrations to soothe leg muscles, not unlike a massager. That would keep soldiers walking and moving longer.

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Being stretchable and soft  would make a big difference to the wearer, of course, as it would be a lot more comfortable (and not chafe). As important, it could be worn under a uniform.

The project is still in the early stages, so the details of which technologies will be brought to bear haven't been worked out yet. The DARPA funding will go to a team headed by Conor Walsh, assistant professor of mechanical and biomedical engineering at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.

via: Wyss Institute

Image: Wyss Institute

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