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Paul Scharre @paul_scharre
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Are exoskeletons over-hyped? Grab a cup of coffee and let's chat about exo-tech [THREAD] 1/x
Dismounted ground troops disproportionately shoulder the burden for American wars. The infantry accounts for over 80% of U.S. casualties since World War II, yet makes up less than 4% of the force.
It wasn't always this way. In WWII, the infantry was the third-deadliest job behind bombadiers and submariners. But in the years since, technology has improved the survivability of bombers and submarines, giving American forces a huge advantage over adversaries.
Body armor and advances in medical care have improved survivability for ground troops, but on the ground in the mud it is still too often a fair fight with enemies. We don't want a fair fight. Our troops deserve better than that.
Why are U.S. forces dominant in the air, at sea, and in tank warfare but dismounted close combat remains as bloody as ever? There are many reasons, including Pentagon bureaucratic priorities, but a fundamental limitation is the weight carrying capacity of the human body.
We *have* technology that can protect people. Body armor works. But it comes at a heavy price. Body armor is heavy, bulky, and hot. It saps mobility, increases fatigue, and reduces situational awareness.
The Army's new, lighter-weight body armor weighs 27 pounds for vest + helmet. That's *heavy.* Protection alone is over half of the soldier's recommended 50 pound fighting load, and it is "parasitic weight" that adds no value until you actually get shot.…
Add weapons, ammo, water, radio, batteries, optics, and other gear and today's grunts are carrying anywhere from 90 to 140 pounds in combat.
[Aside] When on a Ranger sniper team, I once carried 160 pounds up a mountain in Afghanistan. That was my body weight at the time. Humans aren't made for that. We're not ants. Only did that once, though. #dumb
Predictably, these heavy loads have led to an epidemic of musculoskeletal injuries across the force. In Iraq and Afghanistan, the number of soldiers retiring with musculoskeletal injuries increased 10X.…
The heavy loads soldiers carry also have an immediately harmful effect on performance. Studies have shown that heavier loads reduce situational awareness, slow reaction times, and make warfighters more susceptible to enemy fire.…
There are lots of ways to tackle this problem: (1) reducing loads; (2) off-loading weight to robot teammates or rapid resupply; (3) and increasing the weight carrying capacity of dismounted troops. The Army and Marine Corps should be doing *all* of these things.
There are many options for incremental gains in the near-term. Today’s body armor systems are likely over-designed in a number of areas, adding unnecessary weight. There may be opportunities to reduce weight without reducing soldier survivability.…
If you're looking for magical spider-silk armor, though, don't hold your breath. Body armor materials improved dramatically over the 20th century but there have been incremental gains over the past decade. Future improvements in materials are likely to marginal.
There may be options to improve human physical strength directly, which we will cover in the next report in our Super Soldiers series, "Human Performance Enhancement," but near-term gains are likely to be incremental (5 to 20%) and come with risks.
In the long run, the only technology that could truly change the game for ground troops is load-bearing exoskeletons. The dream exoskeleton would allow soldiers to wear even greater levels of protection, covering now-vulnerable areas of the body, *and* move faster.
This was the dream of SOCOM's moonshot-on-a-shoestring project TALOS -- to encase a special operator in armor and save lives. That's the *why* of exoskeletons. But is the technology ready?
Are exos science fiction or reality? I will admit, I started our Super Soldiers project for the Army Research Lab as an exoskeleton skeptic. Exoskeletons have long been plagued my major limitations in power and endurance.
For a long time, the most realistic sci fi depiction of exoskeletons wasn't Ripley in Aliens, but the scene in the Edge of Tomorrow where Tom Cruise's character's suit runs out of batteries and he has to ditch it in a field.
I was surprised to find that exoskeleton suit endurance has improved dramatically in the past few years. At least two companies now have viable exoskeletons for military applications that have an endurance of 8 to 16 hours.…
Lockheed's ONYX joint-specific lower-body exoskeleton can operate for 8 to 16 hours over realistic terrain. It is currently being evaluated by the Army.
The ONYX currently covers knee joints but it is a modular system and could later be augmented with hip and ankle actuation and load bearing to transfer weight to the ground. Army officials have said it could be fielded as early as 2021.…
The full-body exoskeleton from SARCOS can operate for 8 hrs of continuous walking on a level surface while carrying a 160 lbs load. This extra load-carrying capacity could be used to carry spare batteries (30 lbs) to double the suit's endurance to 16 hrs.…
8 to 16 hours of suit endurance isn't near the 24 to 72 hours that would be ideal for dismounted infantry operations, but it's a huge improvement from a few years ago (~2 hours).
The path forward for greater endurance is unclear. There's no "Moore's Law" for batteries. Improvements in energy storage are very marginal. Most of the improvements in endurance to-date have come from better power management, reducing energy consumption.
With significant investment, there are good reasons to think DoD can continue to improve suit endurance. There are also more exotic energy solutions like energy recapture from movement or regenerative braking or hybrid gas-electric power solutions that might be worth exploring.
Even at their current state, there may be some limited viable operational uses for exoskeletons today, even if long-range multi-day patrols are not yet be feasible. Getting the tech in the hands of warfighters is crucial to maturing the tech *and* doctrine & tactics.
Using exoskeletons effectively isn't just about hopping in the suit and taking off. Like all new tech, units will have to figure out how to successfully incorporate it into operations and, most importantly, how exoskeletons might *change* operations and open new opportunities.
Exoskeletons will add new complications, like battery resupply and suit maintenance, but their long-term potential for ground combat is truly revolutionary.
Exoskeleton technology needs maturation, particularly in endurance, but we're finally at the place where the technology is ripe to take off. The proofs-of-concept have been built. Exoskeletons are real. A major DoD investment program could move them from prototype to operational.
In every other domain of warfare, DoD spends billions to ensure American dominance. Are we willing to do the same for the tiny slice of the American military that bears the brunt of the fighting and dying? #NoMoreFairFights
The DoD should seize this opportunity and launch and fully fund an exoskeleton development program with the aim of fielding a lower-body exoskeleton/exosuit in 5 years and a full-body load-bearing exoskeleton in 10 years.…
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