TAMPA, Fla. — The informally named "Iron Man" suit that U.S. Special Operations has been developing will start to come together over the next 18 months with a first prototype expected to be fully built by the end of 2018.  

Formally known as the Tactical Assault Light Operator Suit, or TALOS, Special Operations Command has spent the past four years tackling complicated technical hurdles to try to revolutionize the performance of a dismounted operator by developing the armored exoskeleton.

"It’s getting very real right now," Col. James Miller, the director of the Joint Acquisition Task Force TALOS, said Wednesday at the Special Operations Forces Industry Conference.

The team of around 35 vendors, labs and academic institutions are diving deeper on systems engineering, he said, adding, "We are going to start building parts and snapping them together" while testing for functionality and safety.

Some skeptics have said the project is moving too slowly or that it's a waste of money to try to develop something only a reality in comic books and movies, akin to the Pentagon building a "Star Wars" Death Star. A few years ago, the suit even made its way into then-Sen. Tom Coburn's, R-Okla., famous "wastebook" among 100 federal programs he called wasteful.

But for Miller, getting TALOS right would be a revolutionary leap ahead achievement for the future special operator, not meant to be fielded in just a few years. "We are trying to redefine in many respects science and engineering," he said.

"We are putting a human inside of a robot," Miller said, which "has to emulate the human itself."

The program isn’t tackling how to give back capability to someone who is impaired; it’s trying to take an elite athlete and super empower someone with that capability, James "Hondo" Geurts, USSOCOM acquisition executive told Defense News in an interview at SOFIC.

While SOCOM is trying to push the bounds with a full suit, there have already been "great spin-offs both in technology and in business practices," along the way, he said.

TALOS program officials sat down with industry representatives by appointment for nearly 12 non-consecutive hours over the course of three-and-a-half day conference.

Each layer of the suit presents complicated technical challenges, and integrating all the layers is yet another challenge. Miller sees it as a "system of systems," like an aircraft or other major weapons platform.

Miller said the base layer of the suit needs to be capable of regulating the operator’s temperature and will have tubes incorporated into the layer delivering chilled water to keep an operator’s core from overheating. Also "junctional fragmentation" will be woven into the fabric to protect the operator where armor pieces won’t cover.

The exoskeleton’s purpose is to displace hundreds of pounds of weight and enhance body movement. It has to be perfectly form-fitting, "kinematically seamless with the body," Miller said. The individual wearing it shouldn’t notice it’s there.

"If we get that right, then we are good," he said, adding exoskeletons have been attempted in the past several decades, but some were so big they couldn’t fit through a door. That won’t work for special operators engaging in close-quarter combat, Miller added.

The 800-part exoskeleton is currently being built using carbon fiber plastics, which is strong enough to replicate and prove design, but not enough to be encumbering or too expensive, Miller said.

The program has used rapid 3-D prototyping as it refines the exoskeleton and has managed to cut what was expected to be a billion-dollar project "way back," Miller said.

For now, the first prototype will be made of titanium, he said, which is lighter and stronger.

Building on the exoskeleton will be an electric actuation system to emulate muscles. The program will develop both upper- and lower-body actuation, Miler said, which is very hard to do, but both are needed.

The final layer of the suit is the armor. The military has mastered ballistic protection on the chest, back and head, but the legs, arms and face continue to lack appropriate protection, Miller said.

The suit can’t be completely armored head to toe because it would hinder movement too much, so positioning the armor is crucial. The current suit would likely have 26 pieces of armor.

The program is entertaining the idea of a removable mandible to cover the lower half of the face and is experimenting with ways to protect the entire face.

"The thing we haven’t gotten to yet is transparent ballistic material glass … that is not so thick you get [dizzy] and want to throw up all over the place," Miller said.

The entire suit will be powered through a system on the back that is currently configured to use commercially available batteries. That method of power is limiting, but at least it’s not a suit that requires being plugged into the wall like experimental robotic suits of the past, Miller noted.

The power will not only control the suit but also a computer that processes a network of communications systems integrated into the helmet that feeds audio and imagery into some kind of head-up display, possibly at cheek-level, Miller said.

Much is left to be contemplated after the first prototype is built, and Miller stressed this is the first of many.

Questions have yet to be answered, such as how the suit could be employed operationally, how to get it to fit a variety of body types and how an operator would quickly get out of the suit if it broke down. Those would likely be answered once the science and technology piece ended and the program moved into an official program of record, according to Miller. 

Jen Judson is an award-winning journalist covering land warfare for Defense News. She has also worked for Politico and Inside Defense. She holds a Master of Science degree in journalism from Boston University and a Bachelor of Arts degree from Kenyon College.