Supersoldier programs for cognitive enhancement and running speed

Scientists and engineers are working on a number of cutting-edge technologies to make US troops faster, smarter and more resilient than their normal selves.

Paul Scharre, a former Army Ranger and the director of the 20YY Future of Warfare Initiative at the Center for a New American Security, said performance-enhancers that are being explored could offer tremendous operational advantages for warfighters.

DARPA has launched 4MM, a project to develop a device that could enable dismounted troops to run a four-minute mile, a benchmark normally reserved for the world’s most elite runners.

“The underlying theory there is if you can provide some forward push to … the wearer, can you make it so they can run faster,” said Mike LaFiandra, chief of the dismounted warrior branch in the human research and engineering directorate at the Army Research Laboratory, where 4MM prototypes have been tested. “There are different concepts for how that forward push comes.”

With DARPA funding, researchers at Arizona State University developed a system called Air Legs.

“We built an exoskeleton … where we used air cylinders that would move back and forth very quickly to allow people to run fast,” said Tom Sugar, a professor in ASU’s department of engineering. “We had people running as fast as 5.5 meters per second or 12 miles an hour.”

Sustained running at that speed would enable a soldier to clock a five-minute mile. A runner would need to reach speeds of 15 miles per hour or greater to achieve a four-minute mile.
LaFiandra said the project is “progressing” and additional prototype evaluations will be conducted this fall.

The Air Force Research Laboratory is testing transcranial direct current stimulation, or TDCS. The process entails attaching electrodes to a person’s head and passing a low-intensity electrical current to the brain. They are seeing slight increases in attention and learning

TDCS not only accelerated learning, pilot accuracy was sustained in trials lasting up to 40 minutes. Typically accuracy in identifying threats declines steadily after 20 minutes.

DARPA has a new program called targeted neuroplasticity training, which aims to speed up the learning process for service members and other defense officials.

“We’re focusing on fully non-invasive, non-implantable devises that can stimulate peripheral nerves superficially,” TNT program manager Doug Weber told National Defense.

DARPA ElectRX program has the goal of improving biological responses for treating illnesses and injury. Nerves are stimulated again but for the goal of enhancing immune system response.

To improve cognitive function, researchers at AFRL see promise in microbiology. Naik is particularly interested in the potential of probiotics.