Exoskeleton technology -- the use of an external wearable framework that augments a human’s natural physical ability -- is one of the most interesting developments in modern military science. Like many other countries around the world, Australia is developing its own version.
Gizmodo has previously covered exoskeletons that can help soldiers aim their guns better, assist firefighters in dangerous situations and even make anyone who wears them ten times stronger -- but if these technologies exist, why we aren’t seeing platoons of Iron Man-style super soldiers being deployed already?
“Most [exoskeletons] are complex, require power and increase the user’s energy cost,” explains Australia’s Defence Science and Technology Organisation (DSTO), While electromechanical exoskeletons are great toys for scientists and bored billionaires, the military has generally not been enthusiastic to commit resources to them.
This is where DSTO’s Operations Exoskeleton (formerly known as the NoREx) comes in. It's a a minimalist take on exoskeleton tech that could see action in the field within 2 years. Presenting the new design in Canberra this week, DSTO’s Tom Chapman explained his list of grievances with ‘traditional’ electro-mechanical exoskeletons, calling them “heavy, power hungry and awkward,” with joints that can never quite keep up with the complex range of motion for the human body. The way that most exoskeletons work today means that, while you may be able to lift ten times the weight you can normally lift, it also takes far more energy to do so.
DSTO’s solution to this problem is radically different -- and not least because its take on the exoskeleton is entirely non-powered. Instead of augmenting the wearer’s physical capabilities, the Operations Exoskeleton instead aims to reduce physical strain and with it the likelihood of injury or fatigue. If other military exoskeletons bring to mind science fiction’s beloved power suit, the DSTO’s take on it is closer to fictional tech that can make heavy burdens weightless -- even without the advantage of zero gravity.
The Operations Exoskeleton can’t bear 100% of the weight of a pack -- yet. It’s currently closer to 66%. That's till a huge improvement to carrying that weight on our relatively flimsy human frames. Especially for an exoskeleton that allows a soldier to retain much of their natural mobility, needs no external power to run and weighs barely 3kg.
Aussie soldiers can be required to carry more than 85kg into combat. Meanwhile, that suitcase you complain bitterly about lugging 500 metres to bag check at the airport is likely under 21kg, the standard weight limit for most airlines. This exoskeleton’s ability to ease more than 50kg of that weight is going to literally be a weight off our troop's shoulders. The suit’s system of flexible cables work passively, transferring part of this carried weight directly to the ground.
It may not have the raw power of the Iron Man suit being developed by the US Army, but the Operations Exoskeleton still manages to achieve high tech results with low tech concepts.
Don’t be surprised if this technology finds a multitude of civilian applications as well -- backpackers or hikers who can’t bring themselves to travel light might find it particularly useful. The Australian Defence Science and Technology Organisation only has a proof of concept at the moment and, as Chapman noted during the tech pitch Gizmodo attended, using it apparently feels "really weird". The Operations Exoskeleton is one of the most functional exoskeleton designs currently being developed, so we'll be watching the progress closely.