US ARMY TESTING LOAD-LIGHTENING EXOSUITS
The futuristic exosuits being tested by army researchers won’t help soldiers outrun locomotives, and it’ll still take more than a single bound to clear a tall building. But a final prototype of the device, which could cut a wearer’s exertion level by 25 per cent when carrying a 100-pound load and might let an unburdened soldier run a four-minute mile, could be tested in a realistic setting in less than two years, according to Major Chris- topher Orlowski, who runs the programme under the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s (DARPA) banner.
DARPA’s Warrior Web initiative spans the entire military, but much of the testing for the four prototypes in the programme’s second phase, and the nine prototypes that made up Phase I, has been hosted by the Soldier Performance and Equipment Advanced Research facility — SPEAR, for short — at Maryland’s Aberdeen Proving Ground. Mike LaFiandra, chief of the Dismounted Warrior Branch at the Army Research Laboratory. “Big picture, we’re really at an exciting time. The technological advancements that are happening... I can see 10 years or 15 years from now, this not only being a soldier device, but helping soldiers who are injured, once they get back.”
Three years after Warrior Web’s inception, soldier-testers are taking the prototypes out of the lab and onto a cross-country course, walking through the woods with an 80-pound pack. While researchers tag along, testers report any perceived benefits from the suit, as well as any problems with comfort or ease of wear — chafing, for example. Rules for what the prototypes must look like are flexible to allow for innovation, but the final version likely will resemble a wet suit, only with a system attached designed to deliver the right force to the right muscle or joint at the right time to ease a soldier’s workload.
DARPA’s stated goal is to build a device that can be worn under the uniform by 90 per cent of the army, so getting the variations right is critical. And even if the device can adapt to its user, researchers must determine the proper training protocol so the user can adapt to the device.