Steady advances in technologies from robotics to power generation and artificial intelligence have made the concept of the military exoskeleton tantalisingly close to reality, but fully powered ‘Iron Man’ suits are still a way off and only small, but steady, steps are being made in getting exoskeletons onto the battlefield.
Exoskeletons offer many appealing advantages to the modern military: greater soldier mobility, physical endurance, and protection. By far the biggest appeal is improving load carrying capacity: modern soldiers are being required to carry more equipment and therefore more weight, in spite of technological advances that are making equipment lighter and more efficient. High-tech equipment also requires power, and the average soldier can go into battle with up to 10 kg of batteries.
During the First World War, soldiers typically carried loads of around 30 kg, but by the Second World War, loads of 35-45 kg were becoming commonplace, and this has only gotten worse during the last three decades. In Afghanistan, for example, British soldiers were often carrying 50 kg, which started hampering their combat performance as the enemy was literally able to run rings around them. One study concluded that a soldier can only optimally carry a third of his body weight, which gives a typical load of 20-25 kg – half of what many modern soldiers carry into battle.
One way of relieving a soldier’s combat weight is using robotic mules or unmanned ground vehicles (UGVs). Another option is the exoskeleton, which can be either powered or unpowered, and full or partial body. Partial body and unpowered, or passive, exoskeletons are being brought to service most effectively, while fully powered exoskeletons are proving harder to mature.
Unpowered or passive exoskeletons merely provide support for the user, and as they rely on the user’s own muscles, they offer limited capability. Nevertheless, they are the easiest to manufacture and use, are generally comfortable as they make use of soft components, and are relatively light.