'Iron Man' Exoskeletons Go Soft

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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