Home / Geopolitics / Iron Man-style and Soft exoskeleton suits to give troops ‘superhuman strength’ and increase their endurance

Iron Man-style and Soft exoskeleton suits to give troops ‘superhuman strength’ and increase their endurance

Some of the missions the soldiers perform can take weeks, away from in difficult terrain like deserts and mountains which requires maintaining an incredibly high level of physical fitness. Around the world, armies are recognizing the importance of maximizing the effectiveness of Soldiers physically, perceptually, and cognitively.Exoskeletons can improve the current physical capabilities of a warfighter, allowing them to run faster, lift heavier objects and relieve strain on the body during physical operations.

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Militaries are trying to augment physical performance, through  Exoskeletons  either through increase in the physical strength of the Soldier or increase their endurance. Today’s exoskeletons allow soldiers to carry 17 times more weight than normal and march with significantly less strain on the body. With an XOS 2 suit, for example, a solider can carry 400 pounds but feel the weight of only 23.5. Practically, exoskeletons are designed to assist soldiers in a wide array of support tasks, including loading supplies and ammunition, getting heavy missiles onto airplanes, and repairing ships.


The exoskeleton systems are more important in an era when the U.S. Army believes its units may have to operate on future battlefields cut off from regular sources of supply. As a result, soldiers can stand carrying heavy weapons longer including shoulder-fired Stinger anti-aircraft missiles and other heavy weapons. Soldiers could also traverse difficult, hilly terrain in places like Afghanistan and Korea with less exertion.


US soldiers shall soon test  next-generation self-powered, exoskeleton suits that could revolutionise combat by allowing troops to move faster, carry less and power high-tech weapons and equipment. Designers of the kit, which is worn around the waist and covers the legs, say their technology enhances the mobility of wearers, reduces fatigue and makes it easier for them to haul weight up hills. And now updated versions of the technology are being developed by the US Army – with the aim of potentially introducing them to troops on the front line within the next decade.


The Sarcos Robotics team has  been awarded a contract by the United States Special Operations Command in March 2019 to deliver a production version of its Guardian™ XO®. The XO is a full-body, autonomously powered robotic exoskeleton. People wearing the suit are able to comfortably lift 90kg without any exertion or strain. The exoskeleton uses a combination of advanced materials, sensors, and algorithms to give wearers ultimate control.


Norinco, China’s state-owned manufacturer of armored vehicles and heavy ground munitions, has debuted its second-generation military exoskeleton, a body brace designed to help infantry members carry some 100 pounds of weapons, supplies, and ammunition. Compared to a previous Norinco exoskeleton, which came out in 2015, this second generation has a better battery, more robust hydraulic and pneumatic actuators, and a streamlined harness. The new version is also lighter, which will likely reduce strain felt by the exoskeleton’s wearer, making it a better choice for troops in mountainous terrain.


Russian Rostec is presenting exoskeletons for promising combat suits at the International Military-Technical Forum ARMY 2018. The exoskeletons were already tested by the Russian Army under combat environment conditions. A fully operative example of a passive exoskeleton significantly increases physical abilities of a soldier, protects joints and the spine and can be adjusted to the height of a particular soldier. The exoskeletons are developed by TSNIITOCHMASH (the Central Research Institute for Precision Machine Building, part of Rostec State Corporation) and GB Engineering.


The exoskeleton is made of lightweight carbon fiber and supports the musculoskeletal system when a person carries weights up to 50 kg (packs, special gear, armaments and ammunition) during long marches and assaults. It is a mechanical device with levers and swivels in the shape of human joints.


The U.S. Army  is also developing soft exosuits  using soft robotics. The Department of Veterans Affairs is also seeking research into soft robotics for exoskeletons to aid wounded veteran. Soft robotics differ from traditional counterparts in some important ways: Soft robots have little or no hard internal structures. Instead they use a combination of muscularity and deformation to grasp things and move about. Rather than using motors, cables or gears, soft robots are often animated by pressurized air or liquids.


US Army testing Exoskeletons for Future Soldier

The US Army Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center (NSRDEC/Soldier Center) has set its sights on some high-tech designs to see how exoskeletons could be used for military purposes. To this end, the Soldier Center has initiated a 48-month long Other Transaction Agreement (OTA) worth $6.9m in total, in order to develop enough exoskeleton systems to conduct a comprehensive operational evaluation.


The biggest defence firm on the list of awardees is Lockheed Martin. Lockheed Martin Missiles and Fire Controls lower-body exoskeleton suit – the Onyx – won a Popular Science award in 2018. The Onyx system combines mechanical knee actuators with multiple sensors and artificial intelligence software to improve strength and endurance.  Lockheed Martin Missiles and Fire Control exoskeleton technologies programme manager Keith Maxwell said: “Innovative human/machine technologies like ONYX can improve human performance, decrease injury and reduce fatigue to help soldiers accomplish physically demanding tasks.”


Another awardee for the US Army exoskeletons programme is US tech start-up Dephy, founded in 2016, which developed its Exo-boot product. It was designed not as a full-body concept but to provide localised support for the foot and ankle.


The XOS2 by Raytheon/Sarcos  uses high-pressure hydraulics, allowing the user to lift masses at a ratio of 17:1. Wearers are given the strength to lift 200lb objects for long periods of time and punch through three inches of wood. The design is also much more agile than the previous generation, giving the user abilities, such as walking, running, climbing stairs and kicking a football.


HULC by design from EKSO/Lockheed Martin Another  also allows weights of 200lbs to be carried without strain on the wearer. Soldiers can move at a maximum speed of 11km/h over a long duration and up to 16km/h burst speed. Soldiers can remove and pack the suit in less than 30 seconds. It also has attachments such as armour, heating and cooling systems, and sensors.


Lockheed Martin  has developed new exoskeleton that lessens leg strain and makes it easier for soldiers to carry heavy loads without becoming exhausted. According to Army Technology, a study by the University of Michigan Human Neuromechanics Laboratory found that people equipped with the Fortis leg exoskeleton carrying a 40-pound load at a 15-degree angle experienced significantly less leg strain.


The knee stress release device (KRSD) was designed to boost leg capacity when lifting or dragging heavy objects, or walking on inclines.  The frame fits round the soldier’s legs, and is attached to a belt worn around the waist. The belt connects to flexible hip sensors, which tell a computer where the soldier is in space, as well as the speed and direction of the movements.  Weighing 27 pounds, the exoskeleton  generates synchronized movements at the motorized knees that physically aid the wearer.  Lockheed Martin claims the system improves work rates by “2 to 27 times”, and that it requires a minimum of training to use.


Operational Exoskeleton (OX) by Australia’s DSTO  is a passive, soft exosuit design with the specific purpose of decreasing the strain on dismounted infantry. The OX uses two Bowden cables, which are commonly used for throttle control for light aircraft and in bicycle breaks, to redirect weight from the soldier’s 85kg backpack directly into the ground. At 3kg, the OX is much lighter than the HULC or the XOS2, however the Bowden cables will still provide some resistance to leg movement due to their stiff properties.


Third Arm Device

The U.S. Army is also developing a “third arm” device that can be attached to a soldier’s protective vest to hold a weapon. The purpose of the device is to redirect all of the weight of a weapon to the soldier’s body and lessen the weight on the soldier’s arms, freeing up his or her hands for other tasks. The prototype of the third arm weighs less than four pounds thanks to the use of carbon fiber composites. “We’re looking at a new way for the Soldier to interface with the weapon,” said Zac Wingard, a mechanical engineer for the Army Research Laboratory’s Weapons and Materials Research Directorate.


As the Army Research Laboratory explained, some soldiers are weighed down by combat gear heavier than 110 pounds. Those heavy loads may worsen as high energy weapons are developed for future warfare. The third arm could also allow soldiers to use future weapons with more recoil. Additionally, researchers plan to examine the device’s potential applications for various fighting techniques, like shoot-on-the-move, close-quarters combat, or even shooting around corners with augmented reality displays.


Super-Releaser is developing an orthotic exoskeleton called the Neucuff

Super-Releaser is developing an orthotic exoskeleton called the Neucuff that could drastically reduce the cost of orthotics. The Neucuff is an entirely soft robotic elbow orthosis that can fit a wide variety of bodies without any customization. It is aimed at allowing people with cerebral palsy to move their arms with enough strength and fidelity to take control of tasks like self feeding and dressing that might otherwise require live-in care.


“Soft robotics offers an avenue to apply force evenly across the body with an exoskeleton that is as gentle as it is strong. Being conformal by nature means a single design can fit a wide range of people just like any athletic brace,” according to Super-Releaser’s website.


These orthotics could mean considerable savings for wounded warriors returning from combat after a disabling injury. It could also help make exoskeletons more comfortable to wear, especially when bearing a heavy load.


MAXFAS exoskeleton improves soldiers’ aim

Dan Baechle, a mechanical engineer at the US Army Research Laboratory (ARL), has developing the MAXFAS exoskeleton made of light metal and carbon composites and stabilizes the shooter’s arm by correcting errors and helping to increase proficiency. The engineer has modified the therapeutic robotic exoskeletal arm used at the University of Delaware to train stroke victims to move their arms properly.


In tests, subjects wore a laboratory version of the MAXFAS unit that consisted of a cable-driven arm with the motors mounted behind the wearer. The arm is attached to the wearer using carbon composite braces that are equipped with sensors that detect a tremor when taking aim and then signals the motors to adjust the cables and correct it, but does not affect voluntary movements. According to Bachele, when in use, the MAXFAS unit provided feedback that reduced the tremor, which remained reduced after the unit was removed.


Rostec details new exoskeletons

The exoskeleton is made of lightweight carbon fiber and have a weight varying between 4 and 8 kg, depending on the configuration. The manufacturer claims it allows a soldier to carry a 50 kg load. “During the tests, a serviceman was carrying a 15 kg backpack, an armour vest without ballistic plates, four loaded magazines, and an assault rifle,” the source said. “The exoskeleton has been fully integrated with the Ratnik soldier ensemble. It is almost ready to enter serial production,” he added. The exoskeleton has been successfully tested during the counter-terrorism operation in Syria. It also passed through some trials in the special units of Russian law enforcement agencies.


According to the spokesperson for the TsNIITochMash, the bureau has also designed a semi-active exoskeleton, which is designated MEP-05-3R. “This modification is fitted with a ‘third arm’, which can carry a cargo with a weight of up to 15 kg. A soldier can easily carry a general-purpose machinegun, for instance, the Kalashnikov PKM or the Pecheneg,” he said, adding that the MEP-05-3R is passing through its trials. “This exoskeleton is finishing its tests and it will be unveiled at an early date,” he said.


Chinese Exoskeletons for difficult environments

Norinco’s first-generation exoskeleton had a top speed of 2.8 miles per hour, for 12 miles. Compared to a previous Norinco exoskeleton, which came out in 2015, this second generation has a better battery, more robust hydraulic and pneumatic actuators, and a streamlined harness. This new version  has enough charge to allow to  walk 20km at a speed of 4.5 km/h.


The new exoskeleton will include physiological and biological sensors, and actuators that serve as the muscles to power the suit. The suit’s helmet has also been built to include a thin, transparent glass with ballistic protection and a heads-up display. Powered knee joints will also allow exoskeleton wearers to climb 100 flights, while still engage in combat. ). The exoskeleton demonstrated enough flexibility to allow lateral ground movement: crawling in the mud while under enemy fire, for example.


The new version is also lighter, which will likely reduce strain felt by the exoskeleton’s wearer, making it a better choice for troops in mountainous terrain. The reduced weight  also increases battery performance. These refinements in weight, ergonomics, and power supply could also boost the second-generation exoskeleton’s co-efficiency ratio. Basically: the higher the ratio, the less physical effort is needed to wear it. A ratio of 5:1 means that the wearer’s body only needs to exert the effort it takes to carry 10 pounds in order to carry 50 pounds.


Norinco isn’t the only Chinese exoskeleton builder. In January 2018, the China Shipbuilding Industry Corporation’s (CSIC) 707th Institute showed off its own powered exoskeleton to senior Chinese military officers. China Shipbuilding Industry Corporation’s (CSIC) 707th Institute has developed powered exoskeleton customized to be used in  the shipyard, where people are expected to carry huge loads. A robotic exoskeleton which can help disabled people to walk again  has been  commercialized, the Xinhua News Agency reported. The report said that since 2010, the Center for Robotics at University of Electronic Science and Technology of China based in Chengdu has been developing the robotic exoskeleton, which is a wearable robot that can be held on one’s waist and legs to help with walking and movement.


The 202 Institute of China Ordnance Industry Group at a June 2015 presentation, showed exoskeleton upgrades, including a larger battery pack on the back, strengthened legs and more powerful, hip mounted hydraulic/pneumatic pumps to power leg movement. The exoskeleton can allow the user to carry over 100 pounds, with enough charge to walk 20 kilometers at a speed of 4.5 km per hour.


202nd sees its exoskeletons eventually being used by frontline infantry in difficult environments like mountainous terrain to easily carry a 100 pound pack of supply and ammunition. Other photos showed that the exoskeleton had enough flexibility to allow lateral ground movement including crawling in the mud while under enemy fire.


The PLA has been testing exoskeleton suits and it held a competition called “Super Warriors” in 2019, in which more than 50 types of exoskeleton prototypes made by 25 developers from all over the country competed in seven areas including lightweight mobilization, heavy-load marching, supply transport and munitions loading, the PLA Daily reported in November 2019.


In December 2020, CCTV reported that PLA border defense troops in Ngari, Southwest China’s Tibet Autonomous Region received a type of exoskeleton suit that enables them to conduct tasks in harsh, high altitude environments more efficiently. This type of suit is non-powered and is particularly effective in missions such as supply delivery, patrol and sentry duty, analysts said at that time.


In 2021, China revealed another type of military-use exoskeleton suit that is powered and that can be used for carrying ammunition, after a previous type of non-powered exoskeleton suit entered service with the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) border defense troops in late 2020 for missions including supply delivery, patrol and sentry duty.


The new type of exoskeleton suit is known as the portable ammunition support assist system for individual soldiers, which can provide 20 kilograms of assisted strength to its user, relieve more than 50 percent of the burden and greatly reduce risks of waist injury, China Central Television (CCTV) reported. The exoskeleton suit weighs only several kilograms, feels light and will not affect normal body movement, the CCTV report said, with a reporter who tried out the gear. It is powered by a motor, which will give a reacting force to its user every time the user gets up after bending over, so the user can get up faster with less effort, the report said.

Taiwan says it’s created a battery-powered exoskeleton suit that can allow its soldiers to run faster and carry heavy objects with ease.

The first-generation suit was engineered by the country’s go-to weapons manufacturer, the National Chung-Shan Institute of Science and Technology, according to The South China Morning Post. The suit is a part of a four year project dubbed the “Taiwan Ironman program,” which a modest budget of $5.74 million and the goal providing Taiwan’s soldiers with a lower-body exoskeleton to enhance their strength and endurance.


“To reduce fatigue of soldiers in carrying heavy facilities… we started developing the powered suit for the military in 2020,” Jen Kuo-kuang, head developer of the project, said in comments at a news conference obtained by the SCMP. Jen told reporters that the suit reduces stress on the leg and hip joints, allowing its wearer to lift and carry heavier objects over greater distances, and at speeds up to four miles per hour.


“They can be used in field operations and movement of ammunition and heavy-duty weapons, and can increase the mobility and efficiency of the troops in wartime and post-disaster rescue missions,” Jen said at the conference. Taiwan currently has plans to develop a version 2.0 of the suit, which it says will enable users to carry up to 220lbs of weight. Jen added that this could be helpful in helping moving the injured during battle.


Russian Armed forces combat tests both active and passive exoskeletons

Russian armed forces are both developing active and passive exoskeletons. The active skeleton suits gear consists of heavy body armor and a futuristic helmet that entirely covers the head and are fully  bulletproof. Apparently, the helmet’s visor doubles as a screen, which will display tactical information and satellite data to soldiers in real time. The suit weighs almost 100 pounds. To compensate for the limited mobility, Russian scientists added in a powerpack that carries most of its weight and supporting the legs and back. However they require large power and even huge battery packs and wearable solar panels don’t sustain them for more than a few hours. Therefore, the Russian suit won’t be able to carry its own weight for long,  experts say.


Unlike active exoskeletons, the passive exoskeleton has no power sources, servomotors, electronics and various sensors. This makes it more reliable and light (4 to 8 kg depending on the configuration). It is absolutely autonomous, and easy to maintain. “This prototype has already been tested during real military operations. The exoskeleton was tested by special detachments of the Russian Ministry of Defense and Internal Affairs bodies in years 2017-2018.


An “iron man” suit made of composite armor, which can completely cover the body of a fighter, is planned to be created for a future new generation of Russian soldiers, its manufacturer said in Nov 2022. “This work is planned to be carried out within the framework of the ‘Legioner’ (Legionnaire) research project. It will examine the possibility of manufacturing an armored ‘suit,’ but again, an exoskeleton will be required to support it,” Oleg Faustov, the deputy general director of the “Armocom” combat equipment and armor protection manufacturer, told Sputnik.

An ultralight armored helmet made of composite materials and weighing only 700 grams (24 oz) has been created in Russia, Faustov added. “We are moving forward and want to make our helmets even lighter. So, we have developed a promising sample weighing only 700 grams, however, it is still too early to talk about the mass production of such helmets,” he said. He specified that the newly developed helmet is 300 grams lighter than the Ratnik 6B47 helmet, which is currently serially supplied to the Russian Armed Forces.


Mind-Controlled Exoskeletons

Russian scientists and engineers are working on a technology that is straight out of science fiction: bionic exoskeleton suits controlled by the human brain, according to Zvezda television channel. There are several means of operating robotic suits, including via a muscle interface. Teaching them to understand brain commands is a real challenge though.


“We believe that a neuro-interface connecting the human brain with an exo-suit is the most efficient means of controlling it. The problem is that we need to teach the computer to understand brain-transmitted commands and this is exactly what we are now working on,” Alexander Kulish, department head at the United Instrument Corporation said in conclusion.



U.S. Army researchers are on the lookout for companies able to design and build powered or unpowered exoskeletons

Officials of the Army Combat Capabilities Development Command Solder Center (CCDC SC) in Natick, Mass.,  issued a request for information (W911QY22REXOS) in March 2022 for the Powered and Unpowered Exoskeletons for Human Performance Augmentation During Maneuver or Logistics Support Activities project.


Exoskeletons are viewed by the Army as a promising approach to enable Soldiers to maintain peak performance when designed to improve strength, endurance and ergonomics while maintaining user safety and reducing physical injury risk during various occupational tasks, loads, or repetitive motion.


This information request, which is for market research, is to identify companies able to develop exoskeleton technologies that can help improve soldier performance during repetitive tasks during logistics support, or for movement and maneuver on the battlefield.

Technical Capabilities Sought

  1. Logistics and Sustainment Support – Capabilities to either augment strength and productivity or reduce risk of injury during lifting, loading, unloading and transporting tasks. May require compatibility with tools or other common DoD Service load interfaces.
  2. Light Tasks – lightweight but ergonomically challenging tasks (e.g., tool use, overhead work)
  3. Medium Lift and Carry – Lifting tasks from a variety of postures, from a range of starting and ending heights including overhead. Technologies may enable more productive lifting, or lower stress lifting at similar work rates.
  4. Heavy Lift and Carry – Lifting tasks including those exceeding 50+ lbs and potentially requiring multiple Soldiers (e.g., loading and unloading 100+ lb objects from vehicles and pallets). Technologies may enable multi-person load handling tasks to be safely performed by a single Warfighter.
  1. Movement and Maneuver Support – Augments the Warfighter’s performance by reducing metabolic energy during maneuvers to allow for either:
    1. Longer distances at the same speed and carried load
    2. Faster speed at the same distance and carried load
    3. Heavier carried load at the same speed and distance
    4. More energy (decreased energy expenditure) after moving the same distance with the same carried load at the same speed
  2. Specific Warfighter tasks of interest include, but are not limited to, the following:
    1. Conduct tactical movement (walk / march) with carried load of 99-136 lbs
    2. Walk in crouched posture, climbing stairs and crawling in a confined space while wearing fighting load (75-90 lbs)
    3. Conduct bounding rushes (start prone, 3-5 second dash, back down to prone) while wearing fighting load (75-90 lbs)
    4. Walking up steep terrain
    5. Conduct up-armored door breach and close quarter battle maneuvers
    6. Digging or filling sandbags
    7. Lift and transport (e.g. fireman’s carry) 270 lb casualty a distance of 45ft
    8. Casualty drag 270lb a distance of 45 ft
    9. Loading and unloading pallets, including lift and carry of materiel varying in size, shape, and weight (up to and exceeding 100 lbs)
    10. Medium and heavy lifting in compromised postures (e.g., low overhead height) and positions (e.g., lifting with rotation, staggered stances, single arm lifts)
    11. Overhead aircraft and/or vehicle maintenance tasks
    12. Holding or gripping heavy items while performing overhead tasks
    13. Jumping from high places or landing after parachuting



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