DARPA’s Warrior Web would protect injury-prone areas by stabilizing and reducing stresses on joints and promoting efficient and safe movement over a wide range of activities, he said.
While protecting against injury, Warrior Web also seeks to make Soldiers into better performers by giving them the feeling of a lighter load and enhancing their existing physical capabilities.
“We’re assessing new technologies that could even allow a Soldier to run a four-minute mile,” Hitt said. “For example, we have components such as motors and springs integrated into a suit which will augment the work performed by the muscles in the legs. This may be a pathway to enhancing performance.”
Such performance enhancement may sound like science fiction.
“The theory behind it is if you can provide enough force to the runner, you could probably have them do a four-minute mile,” said Michael LaFiandra, chief of the Dismounted Warrior Branch at the U.S. Army Research Laboratory. “We’re skeptical because we’re researchers and it’s part of our job to question everything. But, they’re bringing the technology here. They want to demonstrate this four-minute mile concept and we’re hopeful that they can do it.”
“Thirty months from today, we will outfit a squad with our suits and we will compete against a squad without them in activities such as the 12-mile rucksack march, marksmanship and the obstacle course,” Hitt said. “Our vision is to significantly reduce the time it takes to do a rucksack march and then when you get onto the marksmanship course, you’re almost as fresh as if you hadn’t marched at all.”
The soft suit is much lighter than the hard prosthetic exoskeletons, weighing just 7.5 kilograms (not including the air supply that drives the artificial “muscles”). Also, the suit relies on the existing movement of the legs as a person walks — its talent is adding a crucial nudge at the just right moment.
The suit’s performance was tested by five healthy members of the Wyss lab — all male — after they trained to use it for about three days. It’s confusing to react to the suit at first, but once a person adjusts to the push-and-pull of the suit, you feel the difference, Walsh said. “When you wear it, you feel like you’re getting a bit of a boost. After you stop wearing it, you notice that you don’t have that extra assist any more.”
Getting that timing right is important for the suit to work efficiently, sort of like how finding just the right moment to push a person on a swing set can keep them going fairly efficiently for a long time, Walsh explained. This means the suit needs to be an active sensor of a person’s gait as well. “If that timing is off it can actually make it harder for people to walk.”
Walsh says the suit will see development in three main areas: in military applications, to help soldiers walk farther and carry heavier loads; as performance enhancers for athletes; and in rehabilitation medicine as an assistive technology for people who’ve retained the ability to walk, but find it difficult because their muscles are weakened or seen minor damage.
Considering the lifting applications that the suit might one day be used for: “Your muscles are three times as strong, but your bones aren’t any stronger,” he explained.
The “muscles” — or actuators, as roboticists like to refer to them — are powered by compressed air (you can hear the hissing in the one year old YouTube video). The goal is to switch to an electrical, battery-operated system instead. Likely the nine new systems have already made large improvements.
DARPA, along with scientists from the Army Research Laboratory Human Research and Engineering Directorate, or ARL-HRED, tested nine prototype Warrior Web systems on Soldiers over 21 weeks during the first phase of the program.
“I think it has enormous potential,” LaFiandra said. “When you look at the amount of load Soldiers are being asked to carry and the various types of terrain they’re being asked to carry it over, they need some sort of assistance.”
The Army has looked at off-loading gear to a robotic asset or even precision airdrops as ways of reducing Soldier load.
“Those methods will be effective to some extent,” LaFiandra sad. “The reality still remains that Soldiers are going to be carrying a lot of weight. If we want them to be able to perform their mission and carry this weight, we need to do something to help them.”
The initial prototypes went through rigorous evaluation at the Soldier Performance and Equipment Advanced Research Facility at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Md. This facility features a state-of-the art bio-mechanics laboratory where researchers capture high-resolution, highly-controlled data. Immediately adjacent to lab, there is a two and a half mile cross-country course through the woods.
“We can have Soldiers wearing the system walking on the treadmill, measuring how hard the foot hits the ground and how hard their muscles are working, and then have them immediately go outside and climb over stumps and downed trees and walk through water to their ankles if we want them to,” LaFiandra said. “We’re also developing ways of capturing more of the high-resolution laboratory data in that field environment.”
DARPA officials said while they are sharing research and findings with the U.S. Special Operations Command, Warrior Web is not part of the Tactical Assault Light Operator Suit, or TALOS, currently under development.
Brian Wang is a Futurist Thought Leader and a popular Science blogger with 1 million readers per month. His blog Nextbigfuture.com is ranked #1 Science News Blog. It covers many disruptive technology and trends including Space, Robotics, Artificial Intelligence, Medicine, Anti-aging Biotechnology, and Nanotechnology.
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