The Future of Warfare: Iron Man is Coming!

iron_man_suitsAccording to a report filed last Tuesday by the US Navy’s top SEAL, the ambitious plan to build a high-tech armored suit for elite commandos has entered a new phase. After years of development, the military is preparing to analyze three new design concepts, and will begin receiving prototypes of these “Iron Man” suits by the summer.

Adm. William McRaven, commander of U.S. Special Operations Command, said the military will receive the prototypes by June. This project, which was started last year, aims to revolutionize the capabilities and protection of Navy SEALs, U.S. Army Special Forces, and other elite commandos who perform some of the U.S.’s most dangerous and violent missions.

TALOSOfficially known as the Tactical Assault Light Operator Suit (TALOS) – named after the Greek automaton made by Zeus to protect Europa – the designs have already been nicknamed the “Iron Man” suit. Obviously, the name is a nod to all the futuristic technology that powers the suit, including a powered exoskeleton, liquid armor, built-in computers and night vision, and the ability to monitor vital signs and apply wound-sealing foam.

However, there’s a catch with the prototypes. According to McRaven, who addressed reporters at a special operations conference in Washington. the prototypes will be unpowered. As it stands, no known means exists to provide a powered armor suit with the kind of electricity it would need without resorting to a gas-powered generator, or connecting the suit to the local grid.

Warrior_Web_Concepts_WideAs he explained, the challenge of finding a way to power a suit that is portable and ergonomic remains:

Obviously if you’re going to put a man in a suit – or a woman in a suit – and be able to walk with that exoskeleton… you’ve got to have power. You can’t have power hooked up to some giant generator.

Essentially, this means that the days of a genuine “Iron Man” suit are still years away. Best-case scenario, the admiral wants the suit to be used in combat situations by August 2018. Still, he also emphasized the “astounding results” that has been observed in the project so far. The prototypes in assembly now will be evaluated, with the results incorporated into the suits the U.S. will eventually deploy to the battlefield.

ghost_recon_future_soldier-1920x1080It’s unclear what the total price of the project may be, but McRaven said he would like to offer a $10 million prize to the winner in a competition. That hasn’t happened yet, but it’s likely the cost of developing the suit would be many times that, most likely ranging into the billion-dollar bracket. But of course, McRaven thinks it will be worth every penny:

That suit, if done correctly, will yield a revolutionary improvement to survivability and capability for U.S. special operators… If we do TALOS right, it will be a huge comparative advantage over our enemies and give the warriors the protection they need in a very demanding environment.

The admiral said the project was inspired by a U.S. special operator who was grieving the loss of a comrade in combat.  Despite more than a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. still doesn’t have a way to adequately protect commandos who “take a door,” a reference to the controversial raids that kill and capture insurgents all over the globe.

iron_man_destructionAlready, SOCOM has predicted the suit will include futuristic liquid body armor that hardens when a magnetic field or electrical current is applied. This is the most futuristic aspect of the suit, giving the soldier flexibility, mobility, and providing superior protection against ballistic objects. It also will include wearable computers, communications antennae, and a variety of sensors that link it to its wearer’s brain.

By merging digital technology, wireless access to army communications, GPS satellites and databases, and upgraded targeting and protection into one package, a single commando unit will likely have the combat effectiveness of an entire platoon. And from all indications, it’s only a few years away. I imagine the US Special Forces will see a serious boost in recruitment once the suits are available.

And of course, there’s a concept video provided by the U.S. Army Research, Development and Engineering Command (RDECOM) showing what TALOS has to offer:


The Future is Here: The Invisibility Cloak!

quantum-stealth-fieldInvisibility cloaks have long been considered the next frontier of modern warfare. With stealth aircraft, stealth ships and even stealth tanks in service or on well on their way, it seems like the time is ripe for a stealth soldier. But difficulties remains. Whereas cloaking planes, ships and tanks is a matter of simply coating them in materials that can obscure them from radar and thermal imagine, soldiers need camouflage that can move, bend and flex with them.

In recent years, the efforts to produce a working “invisibility cloak” have born considerable fruit. And while most of these took the form of large, cumbersome, desk-mounted constructions that were more of a proof of concept for the material being tested, they did demonstrate that the technology itself worked. This was certainly true of the “cloak” which was created by scientists at Duke University in November of 2012.

INVISIBILITY-CLOAKAnd then came news the following month that a Canadian company named Hyperstealth developed a material that renders the wearer “completely invisible by bending light waves around the target.” Known as “Quantum Stealth”, this true cloak is an apparent follow-up to their SmartCamo – a material that could reportedly adjust its camouflage markings to match its surroundings – that was released at the International Camouflage Symposium in 2010.

Unfortunately, due to security reasons, little was ever known about SmartCamo other than its reported abilities. The same holds true for Quantum Stealth, which the company has been forced to remain clandestine about due the demands of the US Army, to whom they are contracted. So until such time as it enters widespread use, the details and inner workings of the technology will remain inaccessible.

invisibility_cloak1Luckily, the University of Texas in Austin is under no such constrictions, and it is from them that the latest and greatest news comes. In addition to being composed of conventional materials, their new cloak measures a mere 166 micrometers thick and is capable of obscuring an object from multiple directions at once. And though it may not be able to render a soldier truly invisible, it does render them all but invisible to radar detection, which is the intent here.

The fabrication process involved placing a 66µm-thick sheet of carbon (or a metascreen) onto a a 100µm-thick sheet of flexible polycarbonate. The copper is patterned specifically so that the scattered light from the cloak and the cloaked object cancel each other out. This flexible sheet also allows the cloak to conform to the shape of the object, or person, and provides cloaking from microwave radiation from all directions.

invisibility_cloak_uoftNow here’s where things get literal. The researchers responsible for this breakthrough have indicated that, in theory, this cloak could be used to cloak visible light as well. After all, microwaves, infrared and visible light are all physically identical; they are just waves that oscillate at different frequencies. And their design would be more capable of doing this than any cloak composed of metamaterials.

Still, size and scale are still an issue. Whereas their new patterned material scattering technique is capable of hiding an object from multiple directions, it also inversely scales with wavelength. That means that it is only capable of hiding micrometer-scale objects from 400-800THz of visible light. Still, this is exciting news and a step in the right direction!

Before we know it, stealth troopers could be marching all over the planet, invisible to the naked eye and any means of radar detection… Holy crap, what a scary thought! Is it too late to rethink this technology?

future_soldierSource:, (2)

DARPA’s Next-Generation Spygear!

super-soldier-in-repose Remember how not that long ago some researchers were able to produce a new breed of dissolving electronics? Well as it turns out, there are those who want to find a way to militarize this technology. Those people are the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), who are looking to create a breed of “suicide sensors” as part of what they call the VAPR (Vanishing Programmable Resources) program.

As it stands, war zones are often littered with “sophisticated electronic microsystems” that create enticing opportunities for adversaries to collect, study and reverse-engineer their enemy’s technology. And since it’s not practical for advanced armies to pick up all their microscopic gear when they withdraw from an area, it would be nice if there was a way to push a button that would cause all of those deployed electronics to dissolve, destruct or biodegrade.

super_soldierOf particular interest is the “degradation” involving implants in a soldier’s body. Given DARPA’s efforts to develop super soldiers – enhanced with bionic limbs, cybernetics, and implantable sensors and medical devices – future armies will run the risk of seeing that technology fall into enemy hands whenever a soldier is killed or taken prisoner. Here especially, a super soldier would be inclined to see their advanced bio-implants to break down and be irretrievable.

In order to accomplish this, it will be inviting a number of companies to a Virginia conference to kick around ideas for creating what it calls “triggered degradation.” In a recent interview with Wired, program manager Dr. Alicia Jackson expressed the goal of the program as follows:

“VAPR will focus on developing and establishing a basic set of materials, components, integration, and manufacturing capabilities to undergird this new class of electronics defined by their performance and transience.”

VAPR_imageSometimes the hardware will be pre-programmed to self-destruct and in others biodegrade into the surrounding environment. In other cases, such as where human implants are concerned, the electronics will be triggered to dissolve into a liquid. In this last respect, DARPA is already making headway, as they demonstrated last year with a super-thin electronic circuit made out of silicon and magnesium could be fabricated to dissolve in liquid.

Naturally, DARPA concedes that things are not quite where they need to be for everything to work. As they stated in part of the VAPR press release, “key technological breakthroughs are required across the entire electronics production process, from starting materials to components to finished products.” But of course, where there is a will – and unlimited funding – there’s usually a way.


Criminalizing Transhuman Soldiers

biosoldiersIt seems to be the trend these days. You take a predictions that was once the domain of science fiction and treat it as impending science fact. Then you recommend that before it comes to pass, we pre-emptively create some kind of legal framework or organization to deal with it once it does. Thus far, technologies which are being realized have been addressed – such as autonomous drones – but more and more, concepts and technologies which could be real any day now are making the cut.

It all began last year when the organization known as Human Rights Watch and Harvard University teamed up to release a report calling for the ban of “killer robots”. It was soon followed when the University of Cambridge announced the creation of the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk (CSER) to investigate developments in AI, biotechnology, and nanotechnology and determine if they posed a risk.

X-47BAnd most recently, just as the new year began, a report funded by the Greenwall Foundation examined the legal and ethical implications of using biologically enhanced humans on the battlefield. This report was filed in part due to advances being made in biotechnology and cybernetics, but also because of the ongoing and acknowledged efforts by the Pentagon and DARPA to develop super-soldiers.

The report, entitled “Enhanced Warfighters: Risks, Ethics, and Policy”, was written by Keith Abney, Patrick Lin and Maxwell Mehlman of California Polytechnic State University.  The group, which investigates ethical and legal issues as they pertain to the military’s effort to enhance human warfighters, received funding from the Greenwall Foundation, an organization that specializes in biomedicine and bioethics.

In a recent interview, Abney expressed the purpose of the report, emphasizing how pre-emptive measures are necessary before a trend gets out of hand:

“Too often, our society falls prey to a ‘first generation’ problem — we wait until something terrible has happened, and then hastily draw up some ill-conceived plan to fix things after the fact, often with noxious unintended consequences. As an educator, my primary role here is not to agitate for any particular political solution, but to help people think through the difficult ethical and policy issues this emerging technology will bring, preferably before something horrible happens.”

US_Army_powered_armorWhat’s more, he illustrated how measures are necessary now since projects are well-underway to develop super soldiers. These include powered exoskeletons to increase human strength and endurance. These include devices like Lockheed Martin’s HULC, Raytheon’s XOS, UC Berkeley’s BLEEX, and other projects.

In addition, DARPA has numerous projects on the books designed to enhance a soldiers abilities with cybernetics and biotech. These include VR contact lenses, basic lenses that enhance normal vision by allowing a wearer to view virtual and augmented reality images without a headset of glasses. There’s also their Cognitive Technology Threat Warning System (CT2WS), which is a computer-assisted visual aid that instantly identifies threats by augmenting their visual faculties.

CREATOR: gd-jpeg v1.0 (using IJG JPEG v62), quality = 90And in the cognitive realm, there are such programs as Human Assisted Neural Devices (HAND) that seeks to strengthen and restore memories and the Peak Soldier Performance (PSP) program that will  boosthuman endurance, both physical and cognitive. But of course, since post-traumtic stress disorder is a major problem, DARPA is also busy at work creating drugs and treatments that can erase memories, something which they hope will give mentally-scarred soldiers a new lease on life (and military service!)

And of course, the US is hardly alone in this regard. Every industrialized nation in the world, from the EU to East Asia, is involved in some form of Future Soldier or enhanced soldier program. And with nations like China and Russia catching up in several key areas – i.e. stealth, unmanned aerial vehicles and aeronautics – the race is on to create a soldier program that will ensure one nation has the edge.

bionic_handsBut of course, as Abney himself points out, the issue of “enhancement” is a rather subjective term. For example, medical advancements are being made all the time that seek to address disabilities and disorders and also fall into the category of “enhancement”. Such ambiguities need to be ironed out before any legal framework can be devised, hence Abney and his associates came up with the following definition:

“In the end, we argued that the best definition of an enhancement is that it’s ‘a medical or biological intervention to the body designed to improve performance, appearance, or capability besides what is necessary to achieve, sustain or restore health.”

Working from this starting point, Abney and his colleagues made the case in their report that the risk such enhancements pose over and above what is required for normal health helps explain their need for special moral consideration.

These include, but are not limited to, the issue of consent, whether or not a soldier voluntary submits to enhancement. Second, there is the issue of long-term effects and whether or not a soldier is made aware of them. Third, there is the issue of what will happen with these people if and when they retire from the services and attempt to reintegrate into normal society.

It’s complicated, and if it’s something the powers that be are determined to do, then they need to be addressed before they become a going concern. Last thing we need is a whole bunch of enhanced soldiers wandering around the countryside unable to turn off their augmented killer instincts and super-human strength. Or, at the very least, it would be good to know we have some kind of procedure in place in case they do!

What do you think of when you hear the word "super soldier"? Yeah, me too!
What do you think of when you hear the word “super soldier”? Yeah, me too!


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!

The Future is Here: Powered Exoskeletons!

Hello and welcome to a new segment on this site. With all the futuristic developments emerging on a daily basis, and given my own obsession with the coming singularity, I thought a segment on new inventions might be worthwhile.

And thanks go to Dave DeMar for giving me the idea for today’s post! As usual, his cheeky and fun take on the day’s events were a source of inspiration. And they also got me thinking… The clip below shows the news story on Rewalk, the latest development for paraplegics which actually helps them walk. Fans of Glee will no doubt remember it being featured in a recent episode, where the character of Artie got one for Christmas and said how an inventor in Israel was responsible for the development.

File:Hybrid Assistive Limb.jpgSeeing that again got me thinking. I’ve been fascinated with the topic of powered exoskeletons for some time, ever since I began researching it for an upcoming book of mine (the planned sequel to Data Miners: Data Pirates!). As part of the larger phenomena known as Future Soldier, it is the latest in a series of advanced technologies which are being proposed for 21st century warfare.

But of course, the civilian applications are just as interesting and a lot more endearing. Sure, giving soldiers super strength and endurance is cool, but providing the handi-capable with the means to walk and achieve the kinds of full-range of motion the rest of us take for granted is kinda more important, wouldn’t ya say?

However, the coolness doesn’t stop there. Powered exoskeletons are also likely to come in handy in an age of deep-space travel and colonization, should we ever get there. After all, acceleration inside of a ship can produce some pretty fierce stress on the human body, and there are a lot of terrestrial environments where the gravity is more than we’re used to dealing with. Suits of powered armor could be just what we need to get around and do our thing until our bodies adapt to spacing and alien environments.

Way cool! With inventions like these, things like the Iron Man suit may not be as farfetched as all that. Once more, we see the future coming faster than previously thought. But then again, science fiction becomes science fact all the time. Also, check out the clip below and prepare to be inspired!