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.

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