Army scientists are trying to figure out the best way to design hard exoskeletons to fit "fleshy" human bodies so they're comfortable enough to wear in combat.
The U.S. military has been attempting to design futuristic, performance-enhancing exoskeletons for combat soldiers since the late 1990s, but the technology often interferes with the way humans move.
"The human-exoskeleton interface raises a number of potential issues. Most exoskeletons contain rigid elements that can restrict natural movement," according to a recent request for information solicitation posted on www.sibr.gov, a government website for the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program, which is designed to encourage small business to engage in federal research and development.
"The objective of this effort is to demonstrate an interface that can safely join an exoskeleton (which is potentially rigid and/or heavy) to a human being (which is fleshy and load-limited) while simultaneously optimizing the mobility of and minimizing the injury to a dismounted soldier," it states.
The Pentagon has invested in several exoskeleton technologies, including Lockheed Martin's Knee-Stress Relief Device, or K-SRD, a lower-extremity device worn to increase a soldier's physical performance during strenuous activities, such as walking uphill.
Special Operations Command launched an aggressive venture in 2014 to develop the Tactical Assault Light Operator Suit, or TALOS -- an Iron Man ensemble that would provide operators with full-body ballistics protection and increased physical performance. Four years later, the program has produced several prototypes but still faces many challenges.
"An effective interface is one that considers natural human movement, minimizes the forces exerted on or carried by the body and results in negligible long-term injury to the wearer," according to the solicitation, which closed to response Oct. 24.
There is no clear timeline for the effort, but the initial phase asks industry to "conceptualize a suite of bioinspired human-exoskeleton interface concepts for exoskeletons that interface with the lower leg, full leg and upper body," the solicitation states.
- Have a low profile when integrated with the exoskeleton.
- Have the potential to exert very low shear and/or compressive forces on the body.
- Allow the soldier to rapidly don and doff the system.
- Provide easy access for medical treatment.
- Address user comfort.
- Consider physical changes to the wearer due to weight loss or muscle gain.
- Account for natural human movement and soldier tasks.
- Be capable of being applied to a range of lower leg, full leg and upper body exoskeletons to optimize their existing interfaces.
The goal of phase two is to have industry participants develop interface designs that will work with "promising candidate systems," such as Lockheed's new powered lower-body exoskeleton, or ONYX, and "one upper body exoskeleton yet to be identified via the active Army RFI," the solicitation states.
Prototypes will be evaluated on "their ability to minimize interface forces on the body" and "retain natural movement," according to the solicitation.