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Iron Man-inspired suit development ignites technological revolution

June 10, 2019

TAMPA, Fla. The U.S. military set out to build an Iron Man-inspired suit for special operations forces on the front lines of combat.

It ended up with an entirely new kind of superhero.

The Pentagon’s goal of a powered exoskeleton resembling Tony Stark’s famed body armor remains a pipe dream, but officials say years of research into the concept have returned invaluable technology that will allow America’s fighting men and women to push the bounds of physical capabilities in combat.

The program formally known as the Tactical Assault Light Operator Suit, or TALOS has transitioned away from a focus on an impenetrable body shield and instead focuses on a data-driven, cognitive overhaul that ultimately will connect man and machine in unprecedented ways.

Top military officials recently delivered a rare in-depth look at the project’s evolution, failures and successes since its inception in 2013, and how it will serve as a foundation to build a stronger, smarter, more connected force.

“The TALOS project focused on the physical domain throughout the life cycle of the project. As we experienced that, we now recognize our future and how we now have to embrace the cognitive and also the virtual domains simultaneously with the physical,” said Col. Alex MacCalman, director of U.S. Special Operations Command’s joint acquisition task force.

“We’re no longer doing a project to build a suit,” he told an audience late last month at the annual special operations industry convention.

Some special operations forces now will have nearly 50% of their bodies covered by next-generation, lightweight body armor rather than the originally conceived Iron Man-like outfit. Their knees and ankles will be boosted by pneumatic supports, allowing them to run, climb and descend faster with less taxing of the joints. They will be equipped with “stress test” monitors that will funnel vital signs and other information off site, along with a “shot detection garment” that can transmit the location and severity of a wound instantly.

U.S. forces also will be aided by 3D audio and video inside headset monitors, along with other data on their surroundings and the positions of their comrades and enemies.

The technological leap, dubbed the “hyper-enabled operator” (HOE) system, represents one of the most significant advancements in protecting front-line warriors and giving them as much information as possible at the moment they need it.

Different paths

Moving away from an exoskeleton and toward the HOE approach, military insiders say, is a prime example of how the Pentagon sometimes must abandon ideas that simply don’t work and start down a different path.

In its early days, the TALOS project aimed to find groundbreaking methods to protect the first U.S. fighting man or woman through the door in a firefight. The Pentagon’s initial goal was to greatly reduce or even eliminate the risk of a shooting or injury in the crucial early moments of a conflict.

“We did go after an exoskeleton because here was the deal: We started off with a problem statement that said, ‘I want to increase the survivability of the first person through the door in a conflict, in a hostile situation,’” James Smith, U.S. Special Operations Command’s acquisition executive, said at the outset of the Special Operations Forces Industry Conference.

“We made the assumption that there would be no advances in body armor, so to carry that much body armor to increase the survivability of the individual it was going to require an exoskeleton,” Mr. Smith said. “And it was going to be so much weight that the exoskeleton would need to be powered.”

A fully powered exoskeleton a concept that immediately drew comparisons to Marvel Comics’ “Iron Man” would have been a revolutionary leap in military technology, but the idea ran into serious logistical challenges.

Officials said the sheer scale of power needed to fuel functional, full-body armor wasn’t workable.

“In the beginning, the initial power requirement to build this exoskeleton was extremely large. In fact, it was 5 kilowatts for 12 hours,” Col. MacCalman said. “Which meant that in order to achieve that power with batteries you needed 600 pounds of lithium ion batteries, and that clearly was not something viable for someone to wear or even use.”

Years into the project, officials said, the battery life and weight improved dramatically. The full suit, however, never materialized into something usable in combat.

“What we’ve realized is there’s a further advancement that needs to occur for that exoskeleton to be usable in a close-combat environment, the most difficult physical environment you can imagine. ... We’ve got some work to do,” Mr. Smith said.

Years into the process, Mr. Smith said, it became clear that the technology behind body armor was making great strides. The need for a fully powered exoskeleton, he said, has been diminished and ultimately was replaced by the HOE system’s lightweight armor.

Looking back on years of work, officials say the project was a success even without delivering on the original vision.

“We believe that transformational innovation does not start with solutions. It starts with a clear understanding of a problem, and it’s only then that we can bring the right expertise to come in and think about what that problem is ... so it’s refined over time,” Col. MacCalman said.