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Serious Science: mechanized super soldiers

Iron Man is a vision of a human-machine technological convergence; harnessing the full potential of our technology. What future lies ahead of us is still uncertain, but the journey might be less fantastical than anyone had imagined…

Iron Man is a vision of a human-machine technological convergence; harnessing the full potential of our technology. What future lies ahead of us is still uncertain, but the journey might be less fantastical than anyone had imagined…

Iron Man is the crime-fighting alter-ego of Anthony “Tony” Edward Stark, a wealthy industrialist and genius inventor who creates a powerful mechanical suit of armour. In both the comic book and the recent Iron Man movie, Stark has various abilities, including being able to fly.

But just how close are we to a mechanical suit of armour, capable of bestowing upon its wearer super human abilities?

Iron Man — man and machine as one

Iron ManRobotics firm Sarcos Inc. in Salt Lake City are working with the US Army to develop a mechanical exoskeleton, which offers a glimpse of the kind of technologies we can expect to see being used in the near future, such as in combat situations and humanitarian aid efforts.

The exoskeleton is as its name suggests, an external skeleton that attaches to the body of the wearer, enhancing their own physical abilities, granting them extra, possibly super strength.

In its present form, the XOS exoskeleton is quite crude, but the end product would no doubt look similar to Master Chief from Halo, or even Iron Man himself, though I doubt purple and yellow are colours high in the minds of the military hierarchy.

A question of logistics

Could the XOS exoskeleton be used right now? I can see the XOS working quite well in supply line and logistics, where soldiers could easily move huge amounts of goods & supplies around without the need for things like forklifts or cranes, for certain items:

“The suit works by sensing every movement the wearer makes and almost instantly amplifying it.

The Army believes soldiers may someday wear the suits in combat, but it’s focusing for now on applications such as loading cargo or repairing heavy equipment.”

This is pretty much an area the US army will have in mind, that and front line activities, as they mention. But that’s some way off, right?

So let’s leap ahead 15 years. All of the trials are through, key components have been reduced in size, toughened and placed inside a smooth combat chassis, forged from some exciting lightweight composite material, capable of withstanding extremes of heat, cold and high velocity impact.

Also, the power requirements have first been greatly enhanced with efficient and compact cell batteries, as well as energy usage being vastly reduced, augmented by kinetic energy and solar power. So the actual movement of the soldier is enough to provide an appreciable amount of energy, while the whole of the outer surface of the mechanical armour is coated with photovoltaic (solar) cells, capturing sunlight.

On the front line — man and machine

A common theme of modern warfare is road side bombs, which remove limbs and destroy lives. Soldiers encased in combat armour would be shielded to a large extent from such things, reducing the number of casualties from small but strategically placed explosives.

Deployment of our mechanical super soldiers would be less resource intensive, too. Rather than trucking them into position, or flying them in via helicopter, these soldiers could run — and run, and run and keep on running. In fact, they could probably run as fast a motor car.

Couple that with their prodigious strength and our mechanical super soldiers would have enough about them to engage with enemy vehicles by hand, fending off small arms fire while grappling and then over turning several tons of off-roader, complete with fleeing occupants.

Speaking of deployment…

Mechanical super soldiers take flight

The enemy of the helicopter is small arms fire and SAMs, otherwise known as surface-to-air missiles. Even more so during deployment of troops and supplies, when they’re either slowed or stationary.

Thinking again about the Iron Man, principally his ability to fly, what if our mechanical super soldiers could fly? Fortunately for our journey into the fantastical, the principle technology for powered solo flight is already under development:

“Playing to a mesmerized audience, Swiss pilot and adventurer Yves Rossy has soared above the Alps with homemade jet-powered wings strapped to his back.

Rossy, an extreme sports guy who has spent years assembling his wings, casually stepped out of an airplane at 7,500 feet, unfolded the wings and quickly passed from free fall to mellow glide. He then fired up the wings’ engines and accelerated to more than 180 mph.”

To say this is just a DIY project of Rossy’s, it’s an accomplished effort, something our would-be über soldat would benefit from greatly.

In this scenario, our mechanical super sodiers could be deployed at a relatively safe distance at high altitude, free falling towards their landing zone before switching to powered flight. Imagine a swooping, engine-screaming flock of super soldiers, flying low and fast into hostile territory, too quick and too small for either small arms or guided missiles.

Once on the ground, they could then begin the business of mechanized warfare.

A sense of control on mind

What with all these sophisticated electronic components feeding reams of tactical data & information into the HUDs (Heads-Up Displays), it’s easy to see how our mechanically assisted super soldier could be overwhelmed.

Mind control

Being strong is one thing, but greater speed and agility count for more. To compensate, direct connections into the human brain would allow for an extra level of control probably not possible otherwise.

In recent experiments on a monkey, the creature was able to manipulate a robotic arm by thought alone:

“The animals were able to feed themselves using prosthetic arms, which were controlled by brain activity.

Small probes, the width of a human hair, were inserted into the monkeys’ primary motor cortex – the region of the brain that controls movement.”

While these experiments are more to do with: “brain disorders, everything from Parkinson’s disease and paralysis to, eventually, Alzheimer’s disease”, the application for such technologies are far reaching.

The ability to interact with complex systems by thought alone would remove the need for our mechanical super soldier to use their hands, eliminating a process that would ordinarily involve typing, or voice control at the very least.

Enhanced senses

For all their mechanized smarts, these super soldiers fail the moment they step into the theatre of war during a night time engagement. Much like our genetically engineered super soldier, enhanced vision is key.

The problem with HUDs is that they’re usually fixed, separate to the eye. What if we could place the HUD onto the eye itself, creating, in affect, a bionic eye:

“Night time incursions would see a huge boost from a tactical HUD (Heads-Up Display) relaying information right inside the eyes of the soldier. Enhanced further by GPS (Global Positioning System) data fed down from government satellites hundreds of kilometers above.

The bionic lens is an intricate marriage of material engineering and micro-electronics, comprised of nanometer thick wafers of metal and LEDs (Light-Emitting Diodes), fused into an geometric mesh of sorts.”

Taking matters further still, target acquisition, tracking and target memory could all be greatly enhanced with an intelligent vision system that sees and then catalogues what you see:

“The University of Tokyo have created an intelligent pair of goggles to help with the video and tagging of your daily activities. Using an increased image recognition software, these goggles can automatically tag the different products you have looked at during the time worn.”

As you can see, all too quickly, things become very clear to our super soldier, ready & able to make informed, instant decisions based not just on what they’re presently looking at, but what they saw previously.

Future wars

Weapons of mass destruction seem less likely to come from the skies as an ICBM (Inter-Continental Ballistic Missile), a nerve gas, a lethal bacterium or viri. Instead, the whirring of gears and heavy footfall may proceed this new breed of man-powered heavy weapons, laying waste to enemy forces and their vehicles as they were but toys, scattered across the playing board…

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By Wayne Smallman

Wayne is the man behind the Blah, Blah! Technology website, and the creator of the Under Cloud, a digital research assistant for journalists and academics.

7 replies on “Serious Science: mechanized super soldiers”

Really interesting article and as your examples show, they are not as far off as most people seem to think. A recent document by the Ministry of Defence talks about brain chips and flashmobs and DARPA has been researching super soldiers for decades now.

Stalin tried to make his own “super monkey soldiers” as well.

Mind control technology isn’t too far away from being used on commercial and web applications either. There are already basic mind control technologies for Second Life and search.

Chris, you’re a man after my own heart! 😉

I’ve read most of things in the past / recently, or things similar.

There were a ton of things I had to cut loose from this article to keep it under thesis length!

Thanks for the additional reads…

This article was informative and scary. Although I like the idea of “our side” having robot soldiers, the thought of “their side” having them terrifies me! I think it is wonderful that technology is advancing to this point, I just wish we would direct the technology towards more peaceful ends.

The increasing speed at which technology is advancing seems breathtaking! I love the fact that our science is leading us into the direction where we can send robots into danger, rather than our precious loved ones. I would like to think that we will use this type of technology in danger cases that are peace-time related rather than war-time, but pragmatism dictates that we all realize that these WILL be war-time machines. The scary thing is the thought that the “enemy” will have robots fighting US, and I can only pray that our robots are bigger, better, faster, stronger than theirs will be!

We all would love to see these kind of developments but the truth is what kinda suit can fly while weighing down the user at least 100 pounds? Its still far off, but in time, with the advancing technology, I wouldn’t be surprised to see one of these things in military development.

I only watched the videos but I’ve been severely intrigued by these technologies for a very long time. From the current exoskeleton it seems to need a lot of work. Should be tested in the rigors of battle to see how well it stands against the many strains that cant be experienced lifting weights and walking around.

These rigors will test the joints and the ability to take pressures at many angles as well as test the suits ability to sustain itself over time in such hazardous environment. The power source is also an important endeavor. It needs to be almost completely self sufficient and last at least a few weeks worth if not indefinite depending on available technology. For proper battle it needs to be able to keep running.

We have some pretty amazing armor for tanks but I believe we have the tech to make it way better; something stronger and lighter. Should be easy to move in and allow for the average soldier to be able to fight a lot of men with the average military guns while the soldier would go unarmed and fight them bare (robot) handed and manage to come out victorious.

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