TCS Daily

Reality Bites: "911" Halts the Global Warming Crusaders

By Melana Zyla Vickers - October 30, 2001 12:00 AM

One would like to think that if Special Forces soldiers such as the ones on the ground in Afghanistan could have special Robocop-style gear that let them walk faster, carry more weaponry, and bust into enemy strongholds, the pro-defense budget-makers in Congress would give it to them, right?

Think again.

In a little-noticed move, the House has proposed to cut from the 2002 defense authorization $4 million in funding for a promising, futuristic program to build the special, physical-power-enhancing suits, or exoskeletons. In the dismissive opinion of the House Armed Services Committee, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency exoskeleton project is of questionable value.

To the contrary, the program promises to use recent decades advances in power sources, materials, and interfaces between the nervous system and machines, such as those used in prosthetics, to increase exponentially the strength and endurance of the average soldier.

Where the typical G.I. is able to walk about 25 miles in 10 hours carrying 50 lbs of gear, the exoskeleton could allow him to cover over 80 miles carrying 150 lbs. This improvement could let the soldier wear more protection against enemy bullets or biological and chemical weapons, and carry some 40 lbs of firepower himself. It would also potentially let him bust his way into enemy strongholds, such as buildings or caves, by kicking down doors or other reinforcements.

Mock-ups of the exoskeleton look like a cross between a scuba wet suit and the hardened armor of Darth Vaders stormtroopers. Among the features exoskeleton researchers are exploring:

-muscle-like mechanical parts that give the suit-wearer additional strength -use of composite materials that arent easily detected by the enemy -interfaces between the soldiers body and the suit fibers similar to those used in prosthetics -armor that resists .50 caliber bullets -sensors against chemical and biological threats -fuel-cell or chemical-reaction power sources -full suit weight between 50-90 lbs

The exoskeleton idea is not new. In 1965, General Electric produced Hardiman, an outrageously cumbersome armor that made the person wearing it look like he had Harley Davidsons strapped vertically to each side of his body. The clunker, produced for the Department of Defense, weighed 1,500 lbs and was quickly abandoned. Similarly unwieldy have been suits with jet packs and giant turbines protruding from them, designed to let individual soldiers fly quickly across great distances. While the jet packs are an inspired idea, their execution has been terrible.

The House Armed Services committee alluded to those old exoskeleton projects when it made its $4 million cut. But the technologies that would be used in a new exoskeleton have leaped in the last decade alone. Deciding to cut the program on the basis of 40 year-old technology is a little like concluding the portable computer could never exist because Univacs were so big.

The Senate Armed Services Committee supports DARPAs $38 million exoskeleton program, which would produce a functioning suit by 2005. Heres hoping that right-thinking senators will prevail in conference over their less-imaginative House counterparts.

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