Bad New from Mars: First Colonists Doomed!

Mars_exploreWith the exploration of Mars continuing apace and a manned missions looming, there has been an explosion of interest in the idea of one day settling the planet. As the non-profit organization known as Mars One can attest, many people are  interested in becoming part of a mission to colonize the Red Planet. In fact, when they first went public, some 200,000 people signed on to become part of the experience.

The fact that the trip would be one-way and that the  plans for getting them there did not yet exist was not an deterrent. But if a recent study from MIT is to be believed, those who choose to go will and have the experience televised will be in for a rather harsh experience. According to a feasibility study produced by researchers at the Institute, the plan has potentially deadly and astronomically expensive flaws.

mars_revelationspaceAfter analyzing the Mars One mission plan, the MIT research group found that the first astronaut would suffocate after 68 days. The other astronauts would die from a combination of starvation, dehydration, or incineration in an oxygen-rich atmosphere. The analysis also concludes that 15 Falcon Heavy launches – costing around $4.5 billion – would be needed to support the first four Mars One crew.

The technology underpinning the mission is rather nebulous; and indeed, that’s where the aerospace researchers at MIT find a number of potentially catastrophic faults. While the technology to set up a colony on Mars does technically exist, most of it is at a very low technology readiness level (TRL) and untested in a Mars-like environment. And the prediction that things will be worked out with time and crowdfunding does not appear to be sufficient.

Mars_one2Mars One will rely heavily on life support and in-situ resource utilization (ISRU) – squeezing water from Martian soil and oxygen from the atmosphere. But these technologies are still a long way off large-scale, industrial use by a nascent human colony on Mars. NASA’s next Mars rover will have an ISRU unit that will make oxygen from the Red Planet’s atmosphere of CO2 – but that rover isn’t scheduled to launch until 2020, just two years before the planned launch of Mars One.

Originally, Mars One’s sign-up list included some 200,000 candidates. That number has now been whittled down to 705 – a fairly even mix of men and women from all over the world, but mostly the US. Several teams of four astronauts (two men, two women) will now be assembled, and training will begin. The current plan is to send a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket carrying the first team of four to Mars in 2022 – just eight years from now. 

spaceX-falcon9The whole thing will be televised as a reality TV show, an instrinsic part of the plan since much of the funding is expected to come from media sponsors and advertisers. In the interim, a number of precursor missions – supplies, life-support units, living units, and supply units – will be sent to Mars ahead of the human colonizers. More colonists will be sent fairly rapidly thereafter, with 20 settlers expected by 2033.

The new feasibility study was led by Sydney Do, a PhD candidate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who has done similar studies on other space missions. Do and his team ran a computer simulation based on publicly available information about the Mars One plan and the kinds of technologies it would rely on. The researchers entered data about the crew’s age, weight and activities to find out how much food, oxygen and water they would need.

Mars_GreenhouseThey took into account information from Mars One, such as its plan that “food from Earth will only serve as emergency rations” and the astronauts will mainly eat fresh food they grow themselves. The simulation monitored conditions in the Mars One habitat over 26 months – the amount of time between spaceships from Earth that would resupply them – or until the death of a crew member, whichever came first.

The results of their study were presented in a paper at the International Astronomic Union conference in Toronto last month. They suggest that serious changes would need to be made to the plan, which would either call for the astronauts to grow all their plants in a unit isolated from the astronauts’ living space to prevent pressure buildup in the habitats, or import all food from Earth instead of growing it on Mars.

mars_one2The researchers recommend the latter, as importing all the necessary food along with the first wave of colonists (not including the costs of development, operations, communications, and power systems) would cost $4.5 billion and require 15 Falcon 9 Heavy Rockets to transport it. Comparatively, flying all the equipment needed for the astronauts to grow their own food indefinitely which cost roughly $6.3 billion.

On top of all that, Do and his research staff have concluded that the project will not be sustainable financially. While Mars One says each subsequent manned mission will cost $4 billion, Do’s study found that each mission would cost more than the one before, due to the increasing number of spare parts and other supplies needed to support an increasing number of people.

mars_roverNaturally, Mars One replied that they are not deterred by the study. CEO and co-founder Bas Landorp – who helped develop the mission design – said the plan was based on the company’s own studies and feedback from engineers at aerospace companies that make space systems, such as Paragon Space Development and Lockheed Martin. He added that he and his people are “very confident that our budgets, timelines and requirements are feasible”.

In any case, the study does not claim that the plan is bogus, just that it may be overreaching slightly. It’s not unreasonable to think that Mars One could get people to Mars, but the prospects for gradually building a self-sustaining colony is a bit farfetched right now. Clearly, more time is needed to further develop the requisite technologies and study the Martian environment before we start sending people to live there.

Mars_simulationOh well, people can dream can’t they? But the research and development are taking place. And at this point, it’s a foregone conclusion that a manned mission to Mars will be happening, along with additional robot missions. These will help lay the groundwork for eventual settlement. It’s only a question of when that could happen…


News from Space: Orion Spacecraft Completed

orion_arrays1NASA’s return to manned spaceflight took a few steps forward this month with the completion of the Orion crew capsule. As the module that will hopefully bring astronauts back to the Moon and to Mars, the capsule rolled out of its assembly facility at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) on Thursday, Sept. 11. This was the first step on its nearly two month journey to the launch pad and planned blastoff this coming December.

Orion’s assembly was just completed this past weekend by technicians and engineers from prime contractor Lockheed Martin inside the agency’s Neil Armstrong Operations and Checkout (O & C) Facility. And with the installation of the world’s largest heat shield and the inert service module, all that remains is fueling and the attachment of its launch abort system before it will installed atop a Delta IV Heavy rocket.

Orion-at-KSC_Ken-KremerThe unmanned test flight – Exploration Flight Test-1 (EFT-1) – is slated to blast off on December 2014, and will send the capsule into space for the first time. This will be NASA’s first chance to observe how well the Orion capsule works in space before it’s sent on its first mission on the Space Launch System (SLS), which is currently under development by NASA and is scheduled to fly no later than 2018.

The Orion is NASA’s first manned spacecraft project to reach test-flight status since the Space Shuttle first flew in the 1980s. It is designed to carry up to six astronauts on deep space missions to Mars and asteroids, either on its own or using a habitat module for missions longer than 21 days. The development process has been a long time in the making, and had more than its share of bumps along the way.

Orion-at-KSC_Ken-Kremer1As Mark Geyer, Orion Program manager, explained:

Nothing about building the first of a brand new space transportation system is easy. But the crew module is undoubtedly the most complex component that will fly in December. The pressure vessel, the heat shield, parachute system, avionics — piecing all of that together into a working spacecraft is an accomplishment. Seeing it fly in three months is going to be amazing.

In addition to going to the Moon and Mars, the Orion spacecraft will carry astronauts on voyages venturing father into deep space than ever before. This will include going to the Asteroid Belt, to Europa (to see if there’s any signs of life there), and even beyond – most likely to Enceladus, Titan, the larger moons of Uranus, and all the other wondrous places in the Solar System.

oriontestflightThe two-orbit, four and a half hour EFT-1 flight will lift the Orion spacecraft and its attached second stage to an orbital altitude of 5,800 km (3,600 miles), about 15 times higher than the International Space Station (ISS) – and farther than any human spacecraft has journeyed in 40 years. It will be an historic occasion, and constitute an important step in what is sure to be known as the Second Space Age.

And be sure to watch this time-lapse video of the Orion Capsule as it is released from the Kennedy Space Center to the Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility in preparation for its first flight:


News from Space: Dream Chaser Airframe Unveiled

dream-chaser-dockedWith the cancellation of the Space Shuttle program, and the termination of NASA’s operations with the Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos), NASA has been pushing ahead with several programs designed to restore their access to low Earth orbit and the International Space Station (ISS). One such program is the Dream Chaser, a joint venture between the Sierra Nevada Corporation and Lockheed Martin that aims to create a winged mini-shuttle.

Earlier this month, the program reached an important milestone when the composite airframe structure was unveiled at a joint press conference by Sierra Nevada Corporation and Lockheed Martin at the Fort Worth facility. The assembly of the airframe took place at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility (MAF) in New Orleans, where Lockheed Martin is busy fabricating the structural components for the composite structure.

Dream Chaser at autoclave FP141497 07_31_14From here, the completed components are shipped to Lockheed Martin’s Aeronautics facility in Fort Worth, Texas for integration into the airframe and assembly. Designed to be launched into orbit atop a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket and then fly back and land on its power, the Dream Chaser will carry a mix of cargo and up to a seven crewmembers to the ISS before landing on commercial runways anywhere in the world.

According to Mark N. Sirangelo, corporate vice president of Sierra Nevada’s Space Systems, the company chose to partner with Lockheed Martin because of its long history in the development of commercial aerospace technology:

As a valued strategic partner on SNC’s Dream Chaser Dream Team, Lockheed Martin is under contract to manufacture Dream Chaser orbital structure airframes… We competitively chose Lockheed Martin because they are a world leader in composite manufacturing, have the infrastructure, resources and quality control needed to support the needs of an orbital vehicle and have a proven track record of leading our nation’s top aviation and aerospace programs. Lockheed Martin’s diverse heritage coupled with their current work on the Orion program adds an extra element of depth and expertise to our program. SNC and Lockheed Martin continue to expand and develop a strong multi-faceted relationship.

dream-chaser-test1Dream Chaser measures about 9 meters (29 feet) long with a 7 meter (23 foot) wide wing span, and is about one third the size of the Space Shuttle Endeavor and all other NASA orbiters – which were retired beginning in 2011. Upon completion of the airframe manufacturing at Ft Worth, it will be transported to SNC’s Louisville, Colorado, facility for final integration and assembly.

SNC announced in July that they successfully completed and passed a series of risk reduction milestone tests on key flight hardware systems that brought the private reusable spacecraft closer to its critical design review (CDR) and first flight. The Sierra Nevada Corporation is now moving ahead with plans for the Dream Chaser’s first launch and unmanned orbital test flight in November of 2016, which will take place atop an Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral, Florida.

dream_chaserDream Chaser is among a trio of US private sector manned spaceships being developed with seed money from NASA’s Commercial Crew Program in a public/private partnership to develop a next-generation crew transportation vehicle to ferry astronauts to and from the International Space Station by 2017 – a capability totally lost following the space shuttle’s forced retirement in 2011.

These include the SpaceX Dragon and Boeing CST-100 ‘space taxis’, which are also vying for funding in the next round of contracts to be awarded by NASA around September 2014. Between a reusable mini-shuttle, a reusable space capsule, and reusable rockets, NASA not only hopes to restore indigenous space capability, but to drastically cut costs on future space missions.



The Future is Here: Autonomos Mineroller Vehicles

terramax-inlineImprovised explosive devices (IEDs), landmines and other kinds of roadside bombs are a major threat to Coalition troops serving overseas. And even though combat operations in Afghanistan are coming to a close in the near future, military planners and developers are still looking for ways to address the kinds of threats that are all too common in these fields of engagement.

One such developer is U.S. defense contractor Oshkosh Defense, which recently unveiled its new M-ATV, an armored vehicle specially designed to resist blasts from IEDs and mines. This specialized, high-tech troop transport detects explosives using special ground penetrating radar and a 12-wheeled mineroller which attaches to the front. But now, the company is going a step further.

M-ATV_Light_P7A1130_rgb_720x300Oshkosh now claims it wants to move soldiers even further from the danger zone by putting them in another vehicle entirely and making the minesweeping truck drive itself. For the past decade, the company has been developing an autonomous driving technology called TerraMax. This self-driving system can be applied to vehicles already on the road, and was unveiled during the 2004 DARPA Grand Challenge.

It’s now equipped with radar and LIDAR, which uses lasers to detect nearby objects, along with a drive-by-wire system that electronically controls engine speed, transmission, braking, and steering. The system does more than steer and hit the throttle and brakes. It can intelligently control a central tire inflation system and driveline locks to navigate deep sand or mud, all without any input from the operator.

terramax-inline2Similar to the technology that powers Google’s self-driving cars, TerraMax is adapted for use in much tougher conditions. But whereas Google and big auto manufacturers can carefully map roads, lane markings, and speed limit signs before its vehicles are even on the road, Oshkosh doesn’t have those advantages. It’s vehicles must navigate hostile terrain in territories that have not been thoroughly mapped and imaged.

So it made TerraMax capable of combining overhead imagery from satellites and planes with standard military maps generated through geographic information systems. That lets soldiers define roads and other obstacles, much like with a commercial GPS system. Once given a defined course, the vehicles can navigate themselves while operators set things like vehicle speed and following distance.

M-ATV_withTerraMax_J4A1330_720x300-CO1Granted, these aren’t entirely autonomous vehicles. Whenever a convoy reaches an impasse  of some kind, the M-ATV will need to alert an operator and ask what to do. However, it is still an impressive system that achieves two key objectives. One, it allows the military to move more cargo with fewer personnel; and two, it makes a convoy look like it’s carrying more personnel than it really is, which is likely to deter attacks.

Oshkosh’s unmanned vehicle technology is still in testing, but the company has spent the last three years working with the Marine Corp Warfighting Lab and the Office of Naval Research to get it ready for the battlefield. And while the technology is currently being developed for combat vehicles, it could also be used in civilian settings – like autonomous snow clearing at airports or police bomb disposal units.

mfc-amas-photo-02-hThough Coaltion forces are drawing down their presence in Afghanistan, Oshkosh’s and other unmanned ground vehicle concepts will likely be used in conflicts around the world in the years to come. Company representatives gave demonstrations of the technology at Eurosatory 2014, a defense industry trade show, and say they received positive feedback from other nations as well.

And it is only one of several military-grade autonomous technology project currently in development. Lockheed Martin is also working on the Autonomous Mobility Appliqué System (AMAS), which also allows for autonomous or semi-autonomous driving. With the development of unmanned systems showing no signs of slowing down, autonomous-vehicle technology is likely to advance considerably in the coming years.

And be sure to check out this video of Oshkosh showcasing the M-ATV and TerraMax system at Eurosatory 2014:


The Future is Here: Driverless Army Trucks

TARDECAs Napoleon Bonaparte once said, “An army marches on its belly”. And like most tidbits of military wisdom, this is one that has not changed with the ages. Whether it’s leading an army of war elephants and hoplites through the Alps, a Grande Armee across the Steppes, or a mechanized division through Central Asia, the problem of logistics is always there. For an army to remain effective and alive, it needs to be supplied; and those supply trains has to be kept moving and safe.

In the modern world, this consists of ensuring that troop and supply trucks are protected from the hazards of enemy snipers, rockets, and the all-too-prevalent menace of improvised explosive devices (IEDs). Until now, this consisted of having armed convoys escort armored trucks through hostile terrain and contested areas. But in an age of unmanned aerial vehicles and robotic exoskeletons, it seems only natural that driverless trucks would be the next big thing.

TARDEC1That’s the thinking behind the Autonomous Mobility Appliqué System (AMAS), a program being developed by the U.S. Army Tank-Automotive Research, Development and Engineering Center (TARDEC) in collaboration with major defense contractor Lockheed Martin. This program, which was demonstrated earlier this month at Fort Hood, Texas, gives full autonomy to convoys to operate in urban environments.

In tests, driverless tactical vehicles were able to navigate hazards and obstacles including pedestrians, oncoming traffic, road intersections, traffic circles and stalled and passing vehicles. Similar to the systems used by the first generation of robotized cars, the AMAS program for the Pentagon’s ground troops uses standard-issue vehicles outfitted with a high-performance LIDAR sensor and a second GPS receiver, locked and loaded with a range of algorithms.

TARDEC-ULV-instrument-panelThat gear, Lockheed said, could be used on virtually any military vehicle, but in these tests was affixed to the Army’s M915 tractor-trailer trucks and to Palletized Loading System vehicles. According to Lockheed, AMAS also gives drivers an automated option to alert, stop and adjust, or take full control under user supervision. David Simon, AMAS program manager for Lockheed Martin Missiles and Fire Control, described the program in a statement:

The AMAS CAD hardware and software performed exactly as designed, and dealt successfully with all of the real-world obstacles that a real-world convoy would encounter.

Under an initial $11 million contract in 2012, Lockheed Martin developed the multiplatform kit which integrates low-cost sensors and control systems with Army and Marine tactical vehicles to enable autonomous operation in convoys. But not only do driverless convoys add a degree of safety under dangerous conditions, they also move the military closer its apparent goal of nearly total autonomous warfare.

squadmissionsupportsystemAMAS algorithms also are used to control the company’s Squad Mission Support System (SMSS), a more distinctive and less conventional six-wheeled unmanned ground vehicle that has been used by soldiers in Afghanistan. Combined with robots, like the Legged Squad Support System (LS3) by Boston Dynamics, the development of driverless trucks is not only a good counter to suicide bombers and IEDs, but part of a larger trend of integrated robotics.

In an age where more and more hardware can be controlled by a remote operator, and grunts are able to rely on robotic equipment to assist them whenever and wherever the 3D’s of hostile territory arise (i.e. dirty, difficult, or dangerous), trucks and armored vehicles that can guide themselves is just the latest in a long line of developments aimed at “unmanning the front lines”.

And of course, there’s a video of the concept in action, courtesy of the U.S. Army and TARDEC:


News From Space: Mars Needs Money!

Mars_OneRemember Mars One, the Netherlands-based nonprofit that began seeking recruits for a one-way trip to the Red Planet during the summer of 2012? Well, it turns out the company is looking to take the next step towards its goal of establishing a human settlement on Mars by 2023. Basically, they are looking to raise the funds to get the ball rolling on the eventual manned mission.

Towards this end, they have started a crowdfunding campaign through Indiegogo – and in partnership with Lockheed Martin – to raise the money for some concept studies, which will test the lander and a satellite that will conduct a demonstration mission in just four years time. The lander is based on Lockheed’s design for the NASA lander successfully used on Mars in 2007 (pictured below).

Mars-One-2018-LanderTheir campaign is seeking to raise $400,000, which will cover the costs of the concept studies, and is a mere drop in the bucket compared to the $6 billion the team estimates will be necessary to get humans to Mars. However, most of that money is expected to come from media broadcasting rights as citizen astronauts are selected and, if all goes as planned, start living on the Martian surface.

As has been stated many times over, Mars One is an evolving idea that seeks to make something historic happen. A future, larger crowdfunding campaign will allow universities to compete to send a full experiment to Mars on the 2018 mission, which will be unmanned. Mars One hopes to send four human colonists to the planet by 2025, selected from a pool of more than 200,000 people who have already applied.

mars_one1And as Hans Lansdorp, CEO of Mars One recently said, this crowdfunding campaign is important to the team to get more people involved. Not only does the project require public interest and participation in order for it to become a reality, Lansdorp and his colleagues also want it to be as international and inclusive as possible:

We really see this as a break with the history of space exploration, and especially Mars exploration, because in this mission anyone can participate in some way… For the U.S., Mars exploration is pretty common. But all of Asia has never sent an experiment to Mars. Now, suddenly we allow anyone, everywhere in the world, to send something to Mars. That’s a complete break with Mars exploration in the past.

Naturally, there are plenty of issues that need to be worked out before anything real can happen, and plenty of naysayers who emphasize the stumbling blocks in sending a manned mission to Mars. These include, but are not restricted to, radiation, microgravity, technological limitations, and the sheer amount of time involved.

mars_one2Despite all that, Lansdorp and the Mars One team remain committed and dedicated to their goal, and have been taking on all challengers with their usual combination of optimism and entrepreneurial spirit. And they firmly believe that given time, all of these hurdles will be negotiable. What’s more, they’ve convinced more than a few critics of the validity of the mission:

If we have some time to talk to people and explain the details of our plan, and as long as they’re commenting on their own field of expertise, I’ve never met someone who could not be convinced that this is possible. It will be very difficult of course–there are thousands of hurdles on the road between now and landing on Mars–but there are no hurdles that we can identify that we cannot take.

As of the penning of this article, the Mars One campaign has been open since December 10th and has raised $209,677 of its $400,000 goal, with 18 more days to go. And there are certainly no shortage of volunteers, as the company is currently processing applications from 150,000 people. So even if it can’t happen by the proposed date, it is clear that they have grabbed the world’s attention.

And in the meantime, enjoy these videos of the proposed Mars One lander design (which will take place in the 2018 demo mission) and the company’s latest promotional video:

Mars One 2018 Lander:

Mars One 2018 Mission:


Big News in Quantum Computing!

^For many years, scientists have looked at the field of quantum machinery as the next big wave in computing. Whereas conventional computing involves sending information via a series of particles (electrons), quantum computing relies on the process of beaming the states of these particles from one location to the next. This process, which occurs faster than the speed of light since no movement takes place, would make computers exponentially faster and more efficient, and lead to an explosion in machine intelligence. And while the technology has yet to be realized, every day brings us one step closer…

One important step happened earlier this month with the installment of the D-Wave Two over at the Quantum Artificial Intelligence Lab (QAIL) at the Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley, NASA has announced that this is precisely what they intend to pursue. Not surprisingly, the ARC is only the second lab in the world to have a quantum computer.  The only other lab to possess the 512-qubit, cryogenically cooled machine is the defense contractor Lockheed Martin, which upgraded to a D-Wave Two in 2011.

D-Wave’s new 512-qubit Vesuvius chip
D-Wave’s new 512-qubit Vesuvius chip

And while there are still some who question the categorization of the a D-Wave Two as a true quantum computer, most critics have acquiesced since many of its components function in accordance with the basic principle. And NASA, Google, and the people at the Universities Space Research Association (USRA) even ran some tests to confirm that the quantum computer offered a speed boost over conventional supercomputers — and it passed.

The new lab, which will be situated at NASA’s Advanced Supercomputing Facility at the Ames Research Center, will be operated by NASA, Google, and the USRA. NASA and Google will each get 40% of the system’s computing time, with the remaining 20% being divvied up by the USRA to researchers at various American universities. NASA and Google will primarily use the quantum computer to advance a branch of artificial intelligence called machine learning, which is tasked with developing algorithms that optimize themselves with experience.

nasa-ames-research-center-partyAs for what specific machine learning tasks NASA and Google actually have in mind, we can only guess. But it’s a fair bet that NASA will be interested in optimizing flight paths to other planets, or devising a safer/better/faster landing procedure for the next Mars rover. As for Google, the smart money says they will be using their time to develop complex AI algorithms for their self-driving cars, as well optimizing their search engines, and Google+.

But in the end, its the long-range possibilities that offer the most excitement here. With NASA and Google now firmly in command of a quantum processor, some of best and brightest minds in the world will now be working to forward the field of artificial intelligence, space flight, and high-tech. It will be quite exciting to see what they produce…

photon_laserAnother important step took place back in March, when researchers at Yale University announced that they had developed a new way to change the quantum state of photons, the elementary particles researchers hope to use for quantum memory. This is good news, because it effectively demonstrated that true quantum computing – the kind that utilizes qubits for all of its processes – has continually eluded scientists and researchers in recent years.

To break it down, today’s computers are restricted in that they store information as bits – where each bit holds either a “1″ or a “0.” But a quantum computer is built around qubits (quantum bits) that can store a 1, a 0 or any combination of both at the same time. And while the qubits would make up the equivalent of a processor in a quantum computer, some sort of quantum Random Access Memory (RAM) is also needed.

Photon_follow8Gerhard Kirchmair, one of Yale researchers, explained in a recent interview with Nature magazine that photons are a good choice for this because they can retain a quantum state for a long time over a long distance. But you’ll want to change the quantum information stored in the photons from time to time. What the Yale team has developed is essentially a way to temporarily make the photons used for memory “writeable,” and then switch them back into a more stable state.

To do this, Kirchmair and his associates took advantage of what’s known as a “Kerr medium”, a law that states how certain mediums will refract light in a different ways depending on the amount shined on it. This is different from normal material materials that refract light and any other form of electromagnetic field the same regardless of how much they are exposed to.

Higgs-bosonThus, by exposing photons to a microwave field in a Kerr medium, they were able to manipulate the quantum states of photons, making them the perfect means for quantum memory storage. At the same time, they knew that storing these memory photons in a Kerr medium would prove unstable, so they added a vacuum filled aluminum resonator to act as a coupler. When the resonator is decoupled, the photons are stable. When resonator is coupled, the photons are “writeable”, allowing a user to input information and store it effectively.

This is not the first or only instance of researchers finding ways to toy with the state of photons, but it is currently the most stable and effective. And coupled with other efforts, such as the development of photonic transistors and other such components, or new ways to create photons seemingly out of thin air, we could be just a few years away from the first full and bona fide quantum processor!


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!