As discussed previously, the Army’s Training and Doctrine Command, or TRADOC, drafted a new strategy for how soldiers will operate, fight, and campaign successfully across multiple domains—space, cyberspace, air, land, maritime—against all enemies (Russia and China) in the 2025-2040 timeframe.
Warrior Maven has confirmed that the Army is literally “gearing up” for decades of hybrid conflict, and in doing so, testing and prototyping self-generating “Ironman-like” soldier exoskeletons. These “breakthrough” suits are designed to transform the combat mission by supporting soldier movements, generating electricity, powering weapons systems and substantially lowering the weight burden of what soldiers carry on the modern battlefield.
The emerging technology, described by Army developers as a “technical breakthrough” is an energy-harvesting exoskeleton suit that can extend mission life for small units or dismounted soldiers on patrol.
“The design is for an energy-harvesting exoskeleton to address the needs of dismounted soldiers. The system can derive energy from the motion of the soldier as they are moving around,” Dr. Nathan Sharps, mechanical engineer, Army Communications-Electronics Research, Development and Engineering Center (CERDEC) recently told Warrior Maven in an interview.
The implications of this technology would be decisive on tomorrow’s battlefield, and could mean the difference between life and death. Last month, elite soldiers from the 10th Mountain Division, a light infantry division at Fort Drum, New York, started testing exoskeleton technologies from Lockheed Martin that reduces the metabolic cost of transport to improve endurance and reduce fatigue on the modern battlefield.
While the exoskeleton suits have been in development for many years, the technology consistently faces the challenge of finding ways to power the devices to maintain its functionality. While current battery technology has evolved, batteries present significant combat challenges due to recharging and weight. The Army is pursuing various efforts to “lighten the load” for soldiers, including the use of exoskeleton suits, robotic pack mules, and cased telescoped ammo.
“The technologies [exoskeleton suits] we are developing can produce electricity, which can be stored and used to power batteries. This increases the longevity of a mission, decreases the need for resupply and reduces the logistics trail,” Sharps explained.
Sharps told Warrior Maven that in hot zones, casualties frequently occur during logistics resupply missions.
While the exoskeleton suit harvests energy from the motion of soldiers, it also simultaneously provides injury prevention and higher output to complete the mission.
“This decreases the chance of muscular-skeletal injury. We look at the soldier as an individual ecosystem. We’re not just looking at what they cannot do right now, but also at what challenges they are going to face 20 years from now,” Sharps said.
Warrior Maven indicates the suit, currently in the early phase of development, is a collaborative effort between the Army Communications-Electronics Research, Development and Engineering Center (CERDEC) and the Army Natick Soldier Systems Center (NSSC). The engineers said the exoskeleton suit reduces the metabolic cost of transport on the modern battlefield.
“When you move, you bounce up and down, and the gait motion is an inverted pendulum. If you lift every step thousands of times, it is a whole lot of energy you are expending,” said Juliane Douglas, mechanical engineer, CERDEC, told Warrior Maven.
Army engineers are experimenting with various configurations for the exoskeleton, including a suspended backpack, which can slide up and down on a spring, enabling little or no weight impact on the soldier.
“In mechanical engineering terms, if you have masses moving together, there is a kinetic energy difference between the two. We have mechanisms which can convert that linear motion into electricity,” explained Douglas.
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Warrior Maven said emerging systems are now being integrated into exoskeletons, for example, helmets with high-resolution thermal sensors, wearable computers, various kinds of conformal body armor and even many weapons systems are now being built into a range of Ironman-like exoskeletons.
Not surprisingly, many of the listed technologies above, heavily rely upon the mobile power to operate and limit the combat mission. Energy-harvesting exoskeleton suits would be a gamechanger for soldiers on the modern battlefield to increase combat output while simultaneously decreasing the metabolic cost of transport to complete the mission.
With the Army increasingly expecting hybrid wars in the 2025-2040 timeframe as the Thucydides Trap inflection point nears, “Ironman-like” exoskeletons are emerging as the dominant strategy to defeat potential enemies (especially ascendant China) in the coming conflicts.
Unless of course China steals the technology, reverse engineers it and comes out with the first working product.