TAMPA BAY, Fla. — For years, U.S. Special Operations Command has been working on a suit for special operators that would essentially provide power and resiliency beyond normal human capability and it appears the project is one year away from a major milestone.
“We knew going into this that it was going to be a real challenge,” Jim Smith, USSOCOM’s acquisition chief told an audience at the Special Operations Forces Industry Conference (SOFIC) May 22. “You put a world-class athlete into a powered exoskeleton, that is going to be a difficult challenge and we are realizing a lot of those challenges.”
But USSOCOM is making progress and Smith added, “right around this time next year, we will put an operator into a powered exoskeleton and lead the Department of Defense on learning what that really means for operations and what is in the art of the possible.”
The Tactical Assault Light Operator Suit, as USSOCOM formally calls it, is a complex system comprised of an intricate arrangement of state-of-the-art technologies that doesn’t look much different from the Iron Man suit found in comic books and movies.
The suit is comprised of a baselayer, an exoskeleton which is essentially a robotic skeleton, and a layer of armor. Concepts of the suit show armor from head to toe and include a complex helmet with built in situational awareness and communications capabilities.
The research and development program’s leaders are taking pains to balance expectations regarding what it’s trying to do to develop an Iron-Man-like suit for special operators.
For instance, the program is accepting the fact it’s taken on an extremely complex endeavor and that what it creates will not become a fieldable prototype.
It once believed it was on track to fully build an end-to-end system in just five years, but that has slipped as some parts of the suit proved easier to develop and refine than others.
“We originally had a goal of five years, that would put us at August of this year,” Col. James Miller, the director of the Joint Acquisition Task Force TALOS, said at SOFIC.
The biggest challenge has been the exoskeleton. “The exoskeleton in itself is problematic,” Miller said.
Previous 800-part exoskeleton prototypes have been 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.
When the program reaches a point where it is satisfied with the design it will build it with more expensive materials like titanium.
Beyond the bones, it will rely on a complex robotic network of actuators that will move the body effortlessly through strenuous tasks.
But the challenge with the exoskeleton has not held back other developments within the program and some elements of the system have already been pushed out to operators in real operational missions, Miller said.
Some subcomponents of the system will reach a high technology readiness level by the end of the year, he noted.
“There are components or aspects of the base layer, be it the thermal-state management, the constellation of sensors for different biological and physiological reading awareness that certainly have applications, useful applications, not only to the military, there are plenty of opportunities there,” he said.
In fact, the program has already fielded base layer systems that help with passive thermal regulations through tubes that move fluids around the body, either warm or cold, depending on the outside environment and the heat the body is already giving off, according to Miller.
And the suit development has also led to technology breakthroughs in sensors that monitor physiological and biological status of the body. Ensuring the sensors stick to the body in the right way is crucial for accurate readings, so they have to able to still work if the body is sweaty or dirty. “They are getting good readings in tests,” Miller said.
From an optics perspective, “we have been able to do a couple of things that nobody has done before, which is very unique and very helpful to us and the rest of our community,” he said. “We have overcome some of the challenges. We haven’t achieved full completion of what we desire for performance, so we continue to work, but I’d say transition capability in the [head-up display] and in the optics piece, absolutely.”
In an animated rendering, the concept for a display built into the helmet is just a small clear plate that is positioned underneath the eye, so a simple glance down shows a wealth of knowledge regarding an operator’s surroundings.
One of the major issues with armor is that what is needed for full protection is still required to be thick and heavy and scientists continue to work on protection that weighs less and is less bulky.
Ideally, protection would weigh as much as a layer of fabric and feel like it, and scientific breakthroughs continue to work toward that.
But for now, the program is hoping to see “some advances in armor” by the end of year, Miller said. “We will see.”
Additionally, the lithium polymer battery developed through the program is putting out “a tremendous energy density,” Miller said. Solid oxide fuel cells are being used in Japan to power houses, he added, but “we have been able to compress ours down quite a bit with at least one fuel.”
And those developments provide ample opportunities or options for other efforts like powering unmanned systems or other dismounted requirements, he added.
Moving forward, the team, in a progressive manner, will start earlier next year, manufacturing and printing parts of the exoskeleton. Each step is crucial fitting the exoskeleton to a man.
But he added, “there is no one application of this suit that is going to end or finish this suit.”
Once the team finishes some of the subcomponents this fall into winter, it will then contemplate how to integrate the technology into the force. “If the operators say it’s useful, then we are going to get it out to the force structure as fast as possible.”
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 in journalism from Boston University and a Bachelor of Arts from Kenyon College.