Special Operations Command Wants X-Prize to Develop 'Iron Man' Suit

By Stew Magnuson

The leader of Special Operations Command would like to see the day when a commando kicking down a door to root out terrorists is wearing a protective suit similar to the comic book hero Iron Man.
Navy Adm. William H. McRaven, SOCOM commander, said it was the death of a special operator in Afghanistan who was killed in such a scenario that kicked off a multi-agency effort to design and develop the tactical assault light operator suit, or TALOS.

"Afterwards, one of the young officers asked me a question I couldn't answer, 'After all these years in combat, why don't we have a better way for the tactical operators to go through a door?'"

The command wants to build on the success of other technology development programs that have used competitions to spark innovation, McRaven said Feb. 11 at the National Defense Industrial Association's Special Operations/Low Intensity Conflict conference in Washington, D.C.

SOCOM is teaming with 56 corporations, 16 government agencies, 13 universities and 10 national laboratories to put together such a suit and all its components, he said.

The goal is to "redefine" the state of the art in tactical survivability and capability, he said. "We are already seeing astounding results," he added. Three prototypes will be delivered to SOCOM in June for evaluations, he said. The goal is to have something deployable by August 2018.

SOCOM wants to leverage some of the innovative development ideas that have been used by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. McRaven mentioned the TV show "Monster Garage" and the X-Prize competitions as inspirations. The garage concoct would bring together different organizations in a "collaborative environment," he said.

McRaven said he has personally gone out to industry leaders and challenged them to work more collaboratively on the project. Too often, large corporations hold their intellectual property close to the chest. There are several technological challenges: power, heads up displays and ballistic protection were three he mentioned. SOCOM sponsored an industry day and demonstrations last summer.

"We are trying to solve what appears to be a very narrow tactical niche, but I am convinced it will have greater applications across the [special operations forces] enterprise," he added.

The comic book character Iron Man has a small nuclear reactor embedded in his chest that provides him all the energy required. SOCOM will not have that option. McRaven said powering such a suit, which may have an exoskeleton, will be the number one challenge. There are a lot of companies large and small tackling the ballistic protection problem, but not as many involved in power generation.

"You can't have the power hooked up to some kind of generator," he said. It will have to be independently powered.

McRaven said he is seeking the authority to have a cash prize for the suit. He wants it to be as high as $10 million, although he has not secured that amount yet. He referenced the Ansari X-Prize, which called for the launch and return of a spacecraft into low Earth orbit and a quick turnaround for a second launch. The teams spent hundreds of millions to develop their space vehicles, even though the prize was only $10 million, he noted.

"This unique collaboration effort is the future of how we should do business," he said.

DARPA has also run a series of robotic competitions called the Grand Challenges. These events  have been open to the public with network television coverage. While Special Operations Command is normally reticent about its technologies, and generally press averse, McRaven said he sees the same type of public and media participation for the TALOS competitions.

"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," he said.

Topics: Science and Engineering Technology, DARPA, Special Operations-Low Intensity Conflict

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