by JAMES SIMPSON
Last December, Japan’s defense research organization proposed allocating $7.5 million of its 2015 budget towards research into “highly mobile powered suits.”
Which sounds awesome. If anyone can craft Iron Man style robotic armor, it’s Japan, right? Don’t hold your breath. As the U.S. military has learned, exoskeletons are still a long way from the battlefield.
The machines are a staple of science fiction films such as Elysium, Edge of Tomorrow and Avatar. Since we’re talking about a Japanese project, we’d be remiss to leave out Mobile Suit Gundam.
And like Ripley’s power loader at the end of Aliens, powered suits are a dual-use technology—meaning they have both civilian and military applications.
But to dial the concept away from science fiction and back to reality, it’s a fairly simple concept. In short, power-assisted robotic suits decrease fatigue while increasing strength.
The ability to lift and manipulate heavy loads—like a wearable forklift—could make exoskeletons ideal for reducing occupational hazards. Warehouse, shipyard and construction workers could use them for jobs that involve moving heavy objects.
Soldiering is physically demanding work, and exoskeletons could reduce battlefield fatigue and enhance a soldier’s speed and endurance. The dual military-civilian nature of the technology is also a perfect match—in theory—for Japan’s Self-Defense Forces.
Tokyo has a defensive-oriented military, and regularly deploys troops for disaster relief missions. Japan sent soldiers to help rescue its citizens after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, and last year’s volcanic eruption in Nagano.
In addition to helping out during large-scale disasters, local governments often request military assistance to help rescue people buried by heavy snow and landslides. These first responders have to lift heavy debris in terrain often left inaccessible to rescue vehicles.
But fatigue is the main problem for the troops, who must rush out to find missing and injured people. Time is absolutely crucial in rescue operations, and machine-assisted endurance could make the difference between whether someone lives or dies.
If Japan were to go to war, the exoskeletons would be a “force multiplier,” in military terms. An enemy’s superior numbers might not matter much if Tokyo’s troops wear power armor.
Japan’s Technical Research and Development Institute—part of the ministry of defense—has worked on the technology since 2010 as part of its “Zero Casualty Battle System” concept. The idea is to avoid human casualties by replacing soldiers with tech whenever possible.
A powered suit could carry stronger bulletproof protection against enemy fire without sacrificing speed and mobility — a problem associated with ceramic plate and Kevlar.
The question is whether Japan presses ahead and attempts a full-body exoskeleton, or a simpler lower-body frame. The former probably isn’t practical—owing to the technical demands. But a partial suit wouldn’t provide much strength, though it could give the wearer more agility and endurance.
Japanese military researchers have already constructed a pair of robotic exoskeletons for the lower body that might one day allow a user to dash and leap around with greater power and speed.
But supplying power is still a problem, and Tokyo’s prototypes all require long cables. That’s fine for the laboratory, but using it in the field would require an enormous battery—with current technologies.
While the design of the suits could accommodate a bigger battery, it’s an inefficient way to provide power. But energy concerns aren’t stopping the research, and Tokyo’s program is already producing some cutting-edge robotics.
At the Japanese defense ministry’s 2012 Defense Technology Symposium, researchers displayed one such technology—high-pressure elastic muscles fitted to a pair of robotic legs that could leap over a meter in less than a second.
But the major problem of every exoskeleton is energy. Putting aside the current limitations on battery tech — which researchers might overcome — they still require some kind of fuel to operate.
Sure, a lot of military hardware requires electricity, but robo-suits are different because a soldier wears them. What happens when the suit runs out of power with its operator still inside?
When the exoskeleton dies, the actuators and elastic musculature will increase resistance against the operator’s movement. If a soldier uses the suit’s added strength to carry more equipment, then a dead suit forces the soldier to ditch this additional kit.
If the operator is strapped in, then it will take time to disengage from whatever fixtures hold them into the frame. That’s time when the operator is vulnerable. In a combat situation, getting stuck inside a inert robot could mean death.
But America might have the answer. Just maybe.
Lockheed Martin and Ekso Bionics have a working system called HULC. The team is developing a long-range model—with fuel cells—sporting a 72-hour battery life. A titanium exoskeleton covers the lower-body and back, carrying up to 200 pounds of equipment and allowing bursts of speed at 10 miles per hour.
The U.S. military didn’t buy HULC, but it funded work on a different Ekso power suit—the Tactical Assault Light Operator Suit—for America’s Special Operations Command.
Of all the programs underway, research into soft-skinned, super-light exoskeletons—such as TALOS—are the most promising.
Like a fighter pilot’s anti-G suit, soldiers could wear low-profile power-assisted skeletal frames under their existing uniforms.
Unlike hard-framed systems, DARPA’s Warrior Web only aims to use small amounts of power — to provide a little extra endurance. If ever deployed, it won’t provide much strength, but could help reduce muscular injuries caused by the stresses of carrying heavy equipment.
These systems would be more modest in comparison to the superhuman strength and agility sought by Tokyo’s research program, but they could provide an edge to soldiers without requiring huge amounts of power.
Then there’s the cost. Japan’s $7.5 million in research and development on the suit is a a fraction of the $80 million the U.S. is spending on TALOS. And that’s nowhere near enough. “To do [TALOS] right, they need about a billion dollars,” an industry official told Military.com.
And if the electricity goes out, it’ll still be a problem for any soldier wearing one. That’s true for the U.S. military’s power suit projects and it’s especially the case for Japan—if researchers go for a more radical, total-body exoskeleton.