Of Exoskeletons

Hey all. A few days ago, I read an interesting article from Io9 that spoke of historic examples of what might be termed exoskeletons. Naturally, it got me thinking about the emerging technology of powered exoskeletons. I’ve been beating around that bush for months now and figured it was high time I just jumped into it. But an interesting thing happened. In the course of researching fictionalized examples of this technology, like Iron Man and so forth, I found that there were real historical precedents. Not just the whole “Future Soldier” concept as we know it, but ones that go back at least a century and a half.

Though they are not quite what you’d expect – for example, most have no power systems or moving parts – they are nevertheless examples of armored exoskeletons that were designed with a modern application in mind… i.e. stopping bullets. Yes, unlike your more conventional suits of armor, these concepts were designed to keep a man alive in a shootout long enough to kill his enemies, reach his objectives, or bust criminals. Here’s the list that I have compiled, in chronological order of when they were debuted:

Ned Kelly’s Armor:
Our first example comes to us from Australia of the 1870’s, in the form of the body armor worn by notorious outlaw and (to some) folk hero Ned Kelly. Like all members of his gang, Kelly decked himself out with this head to groin suit in order to protect himself from gun fire during the commission of their many robberies. Always, the suit war worn under a dust jacket to hide it’s true nature.

The armor was made of iron a quarter of an inch thick, and consisted of a long breast-plate, shoulder-plates, back-guard, and helmet and. Kelly’s suit also had apron on the back and padding was applied inside to provide comfort underneath the armor’s heavy weight of 100 pounds. The suits’ separate parts were strapped together on the body while the helmet was separate and sat on the shoulders, allowing it to be removed easily.

Initially, police dismissed rumors of this armored suit as nonsense, but in the course of a firefight,they began to wonder if Ned Kelly was even human. It was not until he fell and his dust jacket came open that they realized he was wearing the suit, and not some kind of immortal demon!

Dr. Brewster’s Armor:
In the early 1900s, a man from Dover, New Jersey named Dr. Guy Otis Brewster was famous for his experiments with unusual body armors. Perhaps his most famous suit was the bulletproof suit shown at right, which bestowed the wearer with the mien of a warrior polygon. As was to be expected, his tests of this unusual costume garnered him some rather interesting press coverage.

During WWI, his popularity led the US military to take notice. Due to the sheer number of deaths overseas to machine gun fire, and America’s impending involvement in the war. Experiments were conducted at the Picatinny Arsenal in April, 1917, when Dr. Brewster stood in front of a Lewis machine gun and was shot several times. After receiving several hits, he indicated that he suffered no trauma or serious pain from the experience. In fact, he claimed declared that it was “only about one tenth the shock which he experienced when struck by a sledge-hammer.”

However, his designs were not picked up for use in the war, though it was part of a larger effort to equip soldiers with body armor to defend against the hail of bullets they were forced to walk into.

WWI Trench Armor:
The Great War was the most brutal war history had seen at date. And as such, some rather interesting – and in some cases, medieval – equipment was developed as a result. This included many designs of trench armor, which could be something as simple as a faceplate and helmet to a full metal body-suit. The purpose in each case was to provide the wearer with all the necessary protection to ensure that they would be resistant to snipers, machine guns and all other forms of enemy fire.

Naturally, these designs were never picked up en masse, mainly because the weight of the equipment made soldiers cumbersome. In addition, they did not protect against one other all-important killer in trench warfare, that being poisonous gas! Yes, it seemed that if a soldier had any kind of expectation of life in the trenches, their only hope was to cover themselves in sheets of metal, a helmet and a gas mask. In the end, engineers found it much easier to just develop tanks 😉

Police Wheeled Shield:
It seems that the concept for Robocop began long before 8 Man and cyborgs were ever conceived. At least, that appears to be the reasoning behind the Police Wheeled Shield. Developed in 1956 for use by Detroit policemen against rioters and gunmen, this bit of body armor came in both the wheeled and carried variety.

The shield itself is made of an impregnable layer of steel, whereas the man (or men) behind it fire through its portholes. The viewing panel is inlaid with bullet-proof glass, and the flattop carried version also comes with a head-mounted light. Those using the carried version were also equipped with bullet-proof leggings, to ensure the bad guys didn’t get wise and try to trip them up with a leg shot.

Though innovative and virtually indestructible, the wheeled shield never saw widespread use for a number of reasons. For one, it was too large and cumbersome and was eventually rendered obsolete thanks to the invention of lightweight riot shields and Kevlar vests. Still, the idea of an armored cop did play well in the movies. Go Robocop!

Future G.I.:
Developed in the late 50’s, this concept reminds us that during the Cold War, armies took the possibility of having to fight in radioactive environments very seriously. This particular bodysuit, known as the Future G.I., was developed in 1959, but was abandoned shortly thereafter in favor of more conventional concepts. Maybe they thought it was a little to dystopian or something…

In addition to a nylon armored vest that was resistant to radiation, the wearer also sported a transistor radio helmet, and a heat resistant mask. Naturally, the purpose here was to outfit soldiers so that they could defend territory that had been struck by nukes. Clearly, some people in the Pentagon thought that even after the bombs fell, soldiers would still need to fight and die for irradiated stretches of land.

All of the equipment featured in this design was state-of-the-art for the time, and you may notice the soldier posing for the photo is carrying carbine prototype which would eventually become the M16. Oddly, this is the only piece of the suit that would survive, going on to see service in Vietnam and every US conflict ever since.

“Future Soldier”:
Last, we have by far the most comprehensive and in-depth program to date for the development of an exoskeleton. Falling under the general banner of “Future Soldier”, the US and other national armies are hard at work with contractors to try and come up with a workable powered suit for armed forces use. These consist mainly of powered limbs that attach to the soldiers own arms and legs and assisting in basic motions, such as walking, lifting, and carrying heavy loads.

Each variant of the powered exoskeleton is built around the same concept, consisting primarily of an exoskeleton-like framework worn by a person and a power supply that supplies at least part of the activation-energy for limb movement. These will enable soldiers and engineers to be able to bear more weight and survive in hostile environments. Some day, they might even be able to increase a wearer’s running speed and allow them to jump higher and farther as well.

So far, civilian and military concepts for powered suits include the Ekso Bionics/Lockheed Martin HULC (Human Universal Load Carrier), the Sarcos/Raytheon XOS, the Cyderdine (no joke) HAL (Hybrid Assistive Limb) and the Argo Medical Technologies ReWalk module for paraplegics.Each of these suits give the wearer the ability to lift several times their own weight and/or assist them in the use of their limbs, especially in those who are paralyzed or do not have full range of motion or use.

Because of their obvious merits, their exists a massive commercial market for these designs as well, mainly in the field of medicine for spine-injury or terminally ill patients. In fact, it would be no exaggeration to say that military development and civilian development are feeding off each other, with research and development on the one side providing impetus and advancement to the other. So in addition to powered construction suits and Iron Man-type units, we might also be seeing walking suits replacing wheelchairs real soon!

Thank you all for reading and feel free to stay tuned for my next installment in this lineup, featuring the concept of exoskeletons and powered suits in fiction. Really folks, Iron Man is just a drop in the bucket of this fertile concept, so stick around!

7 thoughts on “Of Exoskeletons

  1. It would be an amazing thing for paraplegics, wouldn’t it? And to hopefully decrease casualties in armed conflict. Let’s hope they can come up with something cost effective fast. Very interesting. Great post.

      1. I’m definitely interested! Been reviewing the thread and getting more acquainted with what you guys are hoping to do with it. Sounds like you still need someone to work on the Planetfall portion? Mind you I don’t read a lot of sci-fi and I haven’t written a lick of it so this is all new to me! 🙂

      2. Its okay, its mainly a human interest story so all you really need to do is capture what people are thinking/feeling about relocating and settling into a new home. The technical aspects we can certainly help with, especially me since I am overlord – er, editor – of this project. 😉

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