Saturday, November 10 2012 16:04
Exoskeletons and Bionic Suits – Iron Men are coming

Bionic suits , also known as exoskeletons, are often mistaken to be a work of fiction, or at least to be a very recent high-tech innovation. However, the truth is that bionic suits have been around for quite a while now. Although nowadays several models are being developed for a wide range of applications, from medical to commercial and industrial use, their history stems from military research.

Iron man suite Mark 6

It is not surprising that the concept of bionic suits has always been in the crosshair of military. Although the human body is a fascinating and complex machine on its own, it has its physical limitations. However, with the help of a machine, a bionic suit, soldiers will be able to overcome these limitations and increase their endurance, speed, and strength all the while the suit protects them against the harsh conditions, giving them clear advantage over their enemies. It is this vision that has made the concept of exoskeletons so appealing to the military.

While a simple model of an exoskeleton for human use first appeared as far back as in the 19th century, the first true exoskeleton was developed in the 1960s in cooperation between General Electric and the US military. It was named “Hardiman” and used hydraulic system powered by electricity to amplify the strength of its wearer. Its abilities were quite extraordinary given the technology of the day and the fact that it was the first device of its kind. In theory, it was capable of increasing the strength of the person wearing it by 25 times. In practice, this meant that lifting 250 pounds of weight feel like lifting mere 10 pounds.

However, while Hardiman and its specifications looked great on the paper, its practical use was limited due to several serious design flaws. These drawbacks included its massive weight of 1500 pounds, slow walking speed of just 2,5ft/s and long response times. Furthermore, for unknown reasons, testing of the full exoskeleton always resulted in a violent uncontrollable movement. As a result, the exoskeleton was never tested on a human for safety reasons and Hardiman was deemed impractical and unusable.

Image of Rytheon XOS2

Since then, exoskeletons have come a long way. Modern military exoskeletons such as the American “Raytheon XOS 2” or the French “Hercules” are quite usable and both significantly increase the strength and endurance of their wearers. However, even after more than 50 years of technological development, some of the issues that marked the fate of Hardiman have still not been fully resolved. Among these are joint flexibility, weight and especially power supply concerns. The XOS 2 uses its own internal two-stroke combustion engine to generate power, giving it the advantage of being easily refueled but at the cost of undesirable noise generated by the engine. On the other hand, Hercules is powered by electricity and is nearly silent, but its battery packs need a long recharge time.

There is no doubt however, that as technology progresses bionic suits will overcome these flaws and become practical outside of the laboratory, in real combat. The question is, is this really something to look forward to? It is clear that the current development is heading towards a bionic army. The question is, what will come next? It seems inevitable that one day, as technology progresses, there will be no need for human presence on the battleground at all. Perhaps it will be at that stage, that humans will have to return to the battlefield once again, only this time to fight their own creation, in an apocalyptic battle between men and machines.

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