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SOCOM Tests Sarcos Exoskeleton (No, It Isn’t ‘Iron Man’) « Breaking Defense

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Guardian XO exoskeleton (Sarcos graphic)

WASHINGTON: What moves three miles per hour and can lift 200-pound loads all day without recharging? Well, potentially you or me, if we’re wearing powered exoskeletons. That’s why Special Operations Command  — which is also on the cutting edge of military AI — has joined the Air Force and the Navy in testing the Guardian XO exoskeleton from a Nevada-based small business called Sarcos, the company announced today.

Sarcos graphic

Sarcos Guardian XO

No, this isn’t the so-called Iron Man powered-armor suit sought by former SOCOM commander Adm. William McRaven, known as TALOS — Tactical Assault Light Operator Suit — and effectively abandoned as impractical earlier this year. While exoskeletons have made real progress in the last decade, they’re still heavy, bulky, awkward, and ravenous for electricity, and SOCOM said special operators don’t “feel comfortable” wearing even limited systems into close combat. Troops will test a kind of motorized leg brace that helps them on long marches and distant runs, then strip it off before entering battle.

But even special ops units spend a lot more time maintaining their gear and hauling supplies than shooting bad guys, which means exoskeletons can actually be useful in the near future. Anything that lets troops lift 200 pounds over and over for hours without getting exhausted or injured is a potential godsend for support troops who have to, say, manhandle missiles onto helicopter launch racks, wrangle heavy fuel hoses, or lift broken engine parts out of vehicles.

While SOCOM and Sarcos aren’t saying who the exoskeleton is for, one prime candidate is the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (SOAR), whose troops fly, refuel, rearm, and repair a fleet of helicopters. SOAR operates out of some pretty rough places, but even an ad hoc Forward Arming & Refueling Point (FARP) is a much safer environment to clunk around in an exosuit than a frontline firefight, and there’s plenty of stuff to lift.

Sure, the suit itself is one more piece of heavy equipment to transport and maintain, but transporting and maintaining heavy equipment is what logistics troops — as opposed to frontline infantry — do all the time. And if the exoskeleton replaces some even bulkier equipment, or saves troops vital hours preparing for combat missions, or prevents injuries, it’s well worth trying.

Sarcos’ partnership with the Navy is much clearer. Announced just a week ago today, it’s a Cooperative Research & Development Agreement (CRDA) specifically with the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard and Intermediate Maintenance Facility (PSNS-IMF) in Washington state. The complex has 14,000 uniformed and civilian employees, many of them no doubt with back and shoulder problems from holding heavy welding torches and power tools at unnatural angles for hours on end. The yard will also try out Sarcos’s Guardian S inspector robot, a 17-pound snake-like … thing … on tiny tracks that can wriggle into tight spaces carrying cameras and other sensors.

Sarcos’ longest-standing relationship with the armed forces appears to be with the Air Force. The service awarded the company a Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) contract in 2017 “to develop a full-body exoskeleton for logistics applications” and another contract last year to increase the load-bearing capacity from 80 pounds to 200. The first press release specifically mentioned “pushing and pulling, loading and unloading crates, and carrying payloads over a wide variety of terrains.” Not as glamorous as combat, but as Warrant Officer Ripley from Aliens could tell you, still pretty cool:

Now, how do you translate science fiction into practical reality? Historically, the two big barriers are power requirements and control systems. Most exoskeletons burned so much energy they had to stay plugged in all the time. The imposing but impractical HULC suit of the 2000s could untether itself from its electrical umbilical cord, for a little while, but the same bulky mechanics that boosted the wearer’s strength also inhibited their movements so badly they got exhausted fighting it.

By contrast, Sarcos has streamlined their design so efficiently, they claim, that it can walk around on under 400 watts of power — down 93 percent from 6,000 watts for the first prototype a decade ago. That allows using what CEO Ben Wolff calls “fairly traditional lithium-ion batteries”: three of them, total weight under 45 pounds, that allow you to replace a drained battery with a new one (a “hot swap”) without shutting the suit down.

To minimize the power drain on the suit and the strain on the operator, Sarcos developed a control system they bluntly call “Get Out Of The Way.” Sensors all over the suit track its motions and report to the software, which quickly calculates what the operator is trying to do — “in milliseconds,” Sarcos says — and commands the actuators to amplify it. Enough muscle power to lift one pound makes the machine exert enough force to lift 20.

It may be disappointing that no one is going to use that mechanical might to punch supervillains or alien bug-queens. But logistics has been a crucial American advantage since the “arsenal of democracy” days of World War II, and exoskeletons could help sustain that advantage for decades to come.

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