Lockheed could deploy Combat HULC Exoskeleton in Afghanistan in 2013

Wired Dangerroom – Lockheed Martin’s has a new improved combat version of the Human Universal Load Carrier exoskeleton. It could be headed to Afghanistan for combat trials within a few months.

Lockheed rep indicated today at a Special Forces trade show in Tampa. Asked if there were plans to deploy the HULC exoskeleton overseas following its next round of Army testing, Lockheed’s special operation program manager Keith Maxwell nodded yes and said, “after that.”

Maxwell was wearing what he described as a “smaller, lighter, more energy-efficient” version of the battery-powered external skeleton, complete with an unloaded machine gun on a pivoting mechanical arm. He asked us not to photograph the exoskeleton, but he was happy to discuss it.

In essence, HULC adds an artificial, external spine, hips, legs and the aforementioned pivoting arm to a soldier’s flesh and bones. The machine extremities, powered by a lithium-ion battery, redistribute and transfer up to 200 pounds of weight down and off the wearer’s body, allowing him to carry more, longer. “There’s a 10 percent metabolic cost for the benefit of a heavy load removed,” Maxwell says.

Add loads of food, water, batteries and other supplies, and you become a human pack mule for your squadmates. Swap them out for a heavy machine gun and you transform into what Maxwell calls a “one-man crew-served weapon.” Maxwell says he live-fired his machine gun just before the trade show and “felt the recoil eliminated down to one-third.”

As I have previously observed, with 200 pounds of carrying capacity 50 to 100 pounds could be used for a foldable offroad dirtbike that could go 60 to 80 mph. The soldier could hike in exoskeleton over any terrain and then switch to the bike if they needed to rapidly cover sffome distance. Being able to carry that much weight without tiring would allow for a lot of novel equipment packages and capabilities.

I think the greatest advantage will come not from mixing one exoskleton enabled soldier in with a regular squad but having a dedicated all exoskeleton platoon. If they all had the folding bikes they could have rapid strike deployment with 80 mph even after getting dropped from helicopters. They would have a lot of mission flexibility. If they were supporting tanks they would be able to move at the full attack speeds of the tanks while still be able to get into other terrain.

The exoskeleton squads would enable new strategies and tactics

Lockheed originally rolled out HULC in 2010, but in a heavier, bulkier form that tended to run down its batteries in just an hour. The current model can go for up to eight hours “on the march,” and lasts “days and days” on a single charge if you’re just standing guard with a machine gun. Lockheed is still working on a fuel cell meant to provide 72 hours of power in even the most strenuous conditions.

In September the Army will take the improved exoskeleton out for field tests in the United States. If all goes well and Lockheed can get the required safety certifications, HULC will head to a deployed location for a front-line trial.

Special Forces are slated to remain in Afghanistan for years to come. If they adopt the exoskeletons, we could be seeing (one-sided) cyborg combat on a growing scale in the near future

Previously the expectation was for HULC (lowerbody) exoskeleton Army’s field tests and trials, probably in 2014 or 2015, will be followed by widespread commercial production of powered exoskeletons. The Deployment of exoskeletons in commercial sectors will probably remain quite limited for another decade or so, due to their high cost (more than $25,000 per suit). There will be about 11,000 exoskeletons by 2020.

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