In the future, soldiers might put robots on the same way they do their pants — one leg at a time.
Upcoming experiments will determine if soldiers who strap robots to their bodies can stay healthier and have more energy to complete missions. Later this year the U.S. Army Natick Soldier Center will run laboratory tests on the Human Universal Load Carrier, a hydraulic-powered exoskeleton that can carry up to 200 pounds for extended periods and over rugged terrain.
The robotic skeleton provides strength, while the human who wears it provides the brainpower, said Keith Maxwell, business development manager at Lockheed Martin, which produces the HULC and has a $1.1 million contract with the center to run tests on the apparatus.
Interest in exoskeletons has grown steadily since 2000, when the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency introduced a program aimed at augmenting a soldier’s strength through the use of robotic suits. Ten years later, the momentum is building.
Raytheon also has developed an exoskeleton. More so than Lockheed Martin’s product, Raytheon’s version resembles something a comic book hero would wear with a power chord and metal arms. The HULC runs on a battery that, depending on the activity level of a soldier, could last five hours or all day.
The HULC consists mainly of metal legs, a backpack and lightweight shoulder straps. A microcomputer picks up signals from sensors throughout the exoskeleton so it can mimic the motions of its wearer, reducing the amount of human energy needed on missions. The system can perform deep squats, crawls and upper-body lifting without much help from its human partner.
“You can walk, you can run, you can bend, you can crawl, you can leap,” said James Ni, HULC program manager with Lockheed Martin. “It does not impede your range of motion whatsoever.”
Soldiers become exhausted lugging 120 pounds of gear up 6,000 feet into the thin air of the Afghan mountains, Ni said. The HULC would allow them to have energy left to complete the mission, he explained. It also aims to eliminate injuries caused by carrying heavy loads and making repetitive lifting motions. Every two or three days, military aircraft drop thousands of pounds of resupply gear that soldiers in the field must tote, Maxwell said.
“You cannot carry the loads our guys are carrying today in the mountains of Afghanistan for 15 months and come home and not have back problems,” Maxwell said.
It will fit anyone who stands between 5-feet-4 inches and 6-feet-2 inches.
Biomechanical tests will pinpoint how much oxygen the HULC actually saves a soldier during specific tasks. The Army will run field tests on the system in early 2011.