SPECIAL OPERATIONS-LOW INTENSITY CONFLICT
SOCOM’s ‘Iron Man’ Suit Faces Major Technological Hurdles
U.S. Special Operations Command is on track to deliver the first working prototype of its tactical assault light operator suit by August 2018, SOCOM’s leader Army Gen. Joseph Votel said.
Better known in the popular press as the “Iron Man” suit, the TALOS personal armor system is envisioned as a protective layer for the commandos who kick down doors to root out insurgents.
SOCOM’s science and technology division is about 18 months into the effort. The program is progressing as planned, but “many significant challenges remain,” Votel said Jan. 27 at the National Defense Industrial Association Special Operations/Low Intensity Conflict conference in Washington, D.C.
Officials indicated at the conference that the suit may not be intended for an entire squad, but rather for the lead operator tasked with going through a door first. It was just such a scenario that inspired now retired SOCOM commander Navy Gen. William McRaven to kick off the program in 2013.
Votel said: “We lost an operator at the most vulnerable point in the battlefield and we made a determination that we have to do better in the future.”
Anthony Davis, director of SOCOM science and technology, said at the conference Jan. 28 that, “We’ve gotten a lot of skeptical press over the past two years.” Much of it focused on the Iron Man “cartoony” vision of an armored suit with a nuclear power pack in the chest. The program isn’t about a superhero flying around, he added.
“It’s about protecting the individual operator that is going through the door. That first guy through the door is the most vulnerable of our teams currently,” he said.
SOCOM officials said from the beginning that in order to put the technology into the field as soon as possible, it was forgoing traditional acquisition practices, and reaching out to labs and private companies that don’t normally work with the military.
Putting out requests for proposals, signing a contract with a company, then having it bring back an item that must be tested to see if it performs as promised is not going to work in this case, said James F. Geurts, SOCOM acquisition executive.
“Just doing an incremental approach to that is not going to get us where we need to get to,” he said. SOCOM needs to close the distance between the operator, the inventor and the person who buys it. “Co-inventing” is the buzzword.
SOCOM has a staff of almost 30 working full time on the TALOS project, Davis said. Twelve of them are Army and Navy special operators who have recently returned from battlefields. Their instant feedback is speeding up the development cycle, he said.
The program is already seeing spin-out products emerging from the effort, Geurts said.
Davis said the first year saw the delivery of a “passive” exo-skeleton, or one that is not powered. Carrying the heavy armor that the envisioned suit would require calls for some kind of mechanical assistance. This year, the program is moving on to powered exo-skeletons. SOCOM so far has issued three contracts for three different powered prototypes to be delivered this year, Davis said.
“The third through fifth years of TALOS are the ones that have the even tougher technological challenges,” Davis said.
State-of-the-art body armor weighs between eight to 12 pounds per square foot. One hundred percent coverage of an operator would require 500 to 600 pounds of armor. Today, with front and back plates, plus a helmet, only 20 percent of an individual is protected, Davis noted. The program will have to look at how the armor is distributed, carried and supported, he said.
“A lot of work needs to be done on control theory and how we control those actuators and how they will enable the suits,” he said.
Energy is also a hurdle, Davis said. An exo-skeleton will require three to five kilowatts of power for a 10- to 12-hour operation. “Currently, there is nothing available man-packable that can provide that kind of power source,” he said.
As for perception and situational awareness, digital optics latency is also a challenge, he said. “We are unable with the current state of the art in non-digital optics to provide the amount of information to the operator that they need,” Davis said.
“Current state-of-the-art digital technology is too slow to provide real-time situational awareness to the operators without making them queasy or even nauseous as they are attacking the target,” he added.
SOCOM has already held one challenge prize in the field of digital latency. Such prizes are becoming increasingly popular in the government. They attract teams of competitors who don’t normally work with Defense Department agencies.
SOCOM has $1 million set aside for TALOS prizes. Two more competitions are scheduled for this year. The first in March will be centered around the power challenge. A second in June will focus on actuator controls. Davis said.