Power Remains Key Challenge for Building SOCOM's Iron Man Suit (UPDATED)

By Stew Magnuson
Special Operations Command in 2013 introduced the world to its tactical assault light operator suit concept via a widely disseminated YouTube animated video of a hulking human figure bursting through a door as bullets pinged off its metallic skin.

The press immediately dubbed it the “Iron Man suit.”

Then SOCOM leader Navy Adm. William McRaven said the program’s goal was to protect commandos entering buildings during raids. The command had recently lost a special operator in just such a circumstance, and the TALOS system would bring a measure of safety for those busting though doors where an armed insurgent may be in waiting.

He managed to have $80 million over four years allocated toward the effort and gave technologists until 2018 to deliver a working prototype.

There are doubters. Now retired Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., in 2014 put TALOS on his annual Wastebook list of government boondoggles, saying experts he had consulted claimed it couldn’t be done. On the same list were studies of gambling monkeys, mountain lions on treadmills and the Missile Defense Agency’s low success rate shooting down missiles with other missiles.

“Though it’s in its beginning stages, some estimate it could run way over budget, without ever achieving any results …other than looking cool,” Coburn wrote.

SOCOM technologists and senior leaders admit that there are hurdles to overcome, while at the same time express optimism that the project will deliver the protection that its most vulnerable operators require.

The program is progressing as planned, but “many significant challenges remain,” Army Gen. Joseph Votel, SOCOM commander, said at the National Defense Industrial Association Special Operations/Low Intensity Conflict conference in Washington, D.C. He said the suit was still “on track.”

Powering the suit, allowing the operator freedom of movement and view screens that don’t have latency issues are three of the main challenges, said Anthony Davis, director of science and technology at SOCOM.

Today, with front and back plates, plus a helmet, less than 20 percent of an individual is protected, Davis noted. 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. 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.

Controlling and lifting all that armor will require a lot of energy, he added.

Davis said an exoskeleton 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.

SOCOM’s three main challenges in fielding the suit will be “power, power and power,” said Peter W. Singer, strategist and senior fellow at the New America Foundation, and author of several books about military technology and robotics.

“It’s not going to be unsolvable. It’s just going to be a huge challenge and one of the key limitations for various exoskeleton programs,” said Singer in an interview.

The armor will have to hang off some kind of exoskeleton, which would serve as a frame for the body armor. Several companies have been developing this technology, which has the promise of boosting the strength and endurance of those who wear it.  

Singer said there have been several proposals put forth for portable battlefield energy on such systems. Solar is one. Another is kinetic energy, or using the body’s movements to generate electricity. Unfortunately, the numbers don’t add up for what SOCOM wants. They are still in low percentages, he said.

“Power seems to be the really big [challenge]. But it’s not just SOCOM that’s interested. It’s every smartphone maker. Everybody wants to figure out how to crack this” problem, he said.

The program’s first year saw the delivery of a “passive” exoskeleton, or one that is not powered. This year, the program is moving on to powered exoskeletons. SOCOM so far has issued three contracts for three different powered prototypes to be delivered this year, Davis said.

James F. Geurts, SOCOM acquisition executive, said these prototypes are helping researchers understand how the human body performs, and where the system can provide assistance to the operators.

Powering them will be key to making them practical, he suggested.

“Quite frankly, [they are] creating an exercise machine because you’re causing more work,” he said.

SOCOM officials at the conference suggested that the suit may not be for an entire A-team, but rather for the first operator through the door. He is the most vulnerable to small arms fire. Since these scenarios only take a few minutes, the question is whether 10 to 12 hours of energy is truly needed.

Singer said: “We don’t yet frankly know what will be the uses and how they will evolve once [the suits] get in the hands of actual users.”

Military history is rife with examples of one soldier in a unit being given a special piece of equipment, he said. Soon enough, others are asking why they can’t have the same. As for the suit only being needed for short intervals: “I don’t want to be really well protected for 25 minutes and then have to strip it off and have nothing,” he said.

The TALOS program has energized the small community of research laboratories and companies that are developing exoskeletons, Singer said. The most mature part of the technology is industrial applications. In that case, the man/machine hybrid can be tethered to a power source, he noted. The least mature part of the technology is what SOCOM is setting out to accomplish, namely exoskeletons for field operations.  

Lockheed Martin has developed systems for both applications. The HULC exoskeleton, which was intended to help troops carry heavy loads, but did not support body armor, was last tested by the Army in 2011, but was not fielded. It could assist soldiers for up to 20 kilometers on one charge, company literature stated.

Of late, the company has focused on its industrial exoskeleton, FORTIS, an unpowered, lightweight system. The U.S. Navy has purchased two FORTIS exoskeletons for use in ship repair and maintenance operations at its shipyards. FORTIS is also in use on the Lockheed Martin Aeronautics C-130J production line in Marietta, Georgia, and is being evaluated for use at other Lockheed Martin facilities and companies.

It enhances an operator’s strength and endurance by transferring the weight of heavy hand tools or other loads through the exoskeleton, said Trish Aelker, Lockheed Martin exoskeleton program manager.

She too said power will be a huge obstacle for using the technology in the field.

“There is no power generation technology or hybrid system that is man portable, sufficiently power dense and extensible enough over a widely changing mission profile that can meet the demands of a combat exoskeleton as it is presently envisioned,” she said. “For the foreseeable future, power generation/storage and management will impose a limitation on the size, weight, functionality, duration and application of exoskeleton technologies for combat operations.”

Lockheed Martin is not participating in the TALOS program. Other companies participating in the exoskeleton portion of the TALOS program declined to be interviewed.

Aelker said: “And while a 500 pound exoskeleton can stop the penetration of a 7.62 mm armor-piercing bullet, that same armor cannot protect the soldier from a rocket propelled grenade, larger caliber munition or improvised explosive devices. Exoskeletons cannot suspend the laws of physics,” she said.

“Exoskeleton weight impacts agility and power consumption, and imposes operational limitations on the way a system can be fielded,” she added.  

“Exoskeletons consume power based on a wide variety of factors having to do with what function they are performing in operation and how much they weigh. For instance, running consumes more energy than standing still, and a heavier exoskeleton will consume more energy to move than a lighter exoskeleton. The power hurdle is particularly challenging because missions that are only expected to last minutes or hours can sometimes extend for days,” she said.

A 500-pound armored exoskeleton may stop a 7.62 mm armor-piercing bullet, but is not agile enough to operate in mountainous, littoral or riverine environments, she said. And while a 500-pound exoskeleton can stop the penetration of a 7.62 mm bullet, that same armor cannot protect the soldier from a rocket-propelled grenade, larger caliber munitions or improvised explosive devices, she noted.

Davis said there were two other hurdles SOCOM is hoping to overcome by its self-imposed 2018 deadline. One is actuation, or freedom of movement, and the other is latency with goggles.  

“The third through fifth years of TALOS are the ones that have the even tougher technological challenges,” Davis said.

SOCOM officials said from the beginning that in order to put the technology into the field as soon as possible, the program was forgoing traditional acquisition practices, and reaching out to labs and private companies that don’t normally work with the military.

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.

The three main hurdles: power, actuation and image latency, will all have challenge prizes, Davis said. Such prizes are open to any person or team that can come forward with a solution to a problem. One prize on latency was already held. Another on power was slated to begin in March, but by the end of the month, no details had been released. A second on actuator controls was slated for June. Davis said SOCOM has $1 million in total prize money to award.

SOCOM spokesman Capt. Kevin Aandahl said in April that the command is scrapping its own dedicated power challenge prize, and handing that effort over to an ongoing Department of Energy R&D program. The schedule for the remaining challenge prize competitions has not been firmed up yet, but the next may come in May or June, he said. He declined to make TALOS managers available for interviews.

Singer said the digital image latency issue is probably solvable. That is a problem being worked on in the entertainment industry. There are solutions in the pipeline, although they are probably a few years away, he added. One involves directly beaming lasers of images into the retina. “You are experiencing it as if you’re actually seeing it,” he said.

As for actuators, there are ongoing efforts that may lead to a flexible suit, especially in the realm of 3D printing.

“You could not only make the suits lighter and more flexible. You could tailor them to the individual so you don’t have to have a one-size-fits-all suit,” he said.

That may be important. As any journalist who has embedded with an A-team can attest, special operators come in all shapes and sizes.

Singer was reluctant to say that TALOS was a technological bridge too far for SOCOM. The history of scientific advancement is rife with skeptics who said, “It can never be done,” and were in short order proven to be wrong, he noted.

Nevertheless, his best guess was that this will be a longer-term project.

“Between the vision of the Iron Man suit and the Pentagon’s track record for acquisition, I don’t think they will make it by 2018,” he predicted.

Clarification: An updated version of this story adds a direct quote about protection from Trish Aekler and eliminates some paraphrasing.

Topics: Special Operations-Low Intensity Conflict

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