Iron Man 2 hits theaters today, telling a tale about a man in a suit of armor who flies around like a jet and shoots energy bolts from his palms. In the real world, we're not quite there yet, but you may be surprised just how close we are to an Iron Man of our own.
Powered exoskeletons are mostly sought after to enable the soldiers of tomorrow, who will be able to lift hundreds of pounds and run for miles without breaking a sweat. Beyond that, though, they could save lives in the wake of a terrible disaster, or even perform smaller miracles such as helping the paralyzed walk again.
Continue reading to check out five exoskeletons that do all that and more.
Creator: Lockheed Martin
Powered by: Four lithium ion batteries, 48-hour operation
What it does: Officially the Human Universal Load Carrier, Lockheed Martin's HULC system would allow a soldier to travel 10 miles an hour, even while carrying a 200-pound load. The best part? He would barely feel the excess weight.
The future: Soldiers in the future will be able to carry more complicated and powerful equipment without having to feel the added strain. Lockheed envisions soldiers being able to carry more than just weapons in that they could field more complex electronics to increase their awareness in the field.
Creator: Tsukuba University (Japan)
Powered by: Waist-mounted 100-volt battery pack
What it does: The Hybrid Assistive Limb, or HAL-5, distinguishes itself from almost every other exoskeleton in that it's available now and currently seeing limited use. It uses electrodes resting on the operator's skin to analyze muscle movements, and then enhances the wearer's strength by up to five times what it'd normally be.
The future: A company called Cyberdyne is mass-producing the suits, with early prototypes already available for rental in Japan. The HAL-5 isn't designed for the battlefield. Instead, it was made with Japan's elderly-heavy workforce in mind, as laborers would be able to continue to perform with robotic assistance despite their age.
3. Trojan T Series
Creator: Troy Hurtubise
Powered by: Helmet-mounted, solar-powered battery packs
What it does: Troy Hurtubise's Trojan armor isn't a fully powered suit. Instead, battery packs on the helmet enable the five-way radio, a laser pointer for range-finding and spotting and even an air conditioner. It was popularly referred to as "Halo armor" thanks to its resemblance to the Spartan soldiers in the video game of the same name, and drew criticism for being impractical, despite Hurtubise's claims to its protective capability.
The future: Undeterred, Hurtubise went on to create a second suit, not quite as flamboyant as the Trojan T series (pictured above with a shield), streamlining the suit and making it lighter. The Trojan suits represent his vision of the future soldier, who is more like a walking tank — something that the other exoskeletons on this list could make possible, as they'd allow a trooper to wield such heavy armor.
Powered by: External power supply via cable
What it does: The XOS is similar to the HULC in that it allows the wearer to lift upwards of 200 pounds without feeling any strain, thanks to hydraulic assistance and sensors attached to the hands and feet. (The XOS test pilot is said to have been able to perform over 500 reps at that weight, and still feel minimal strain.) Unlike the HULC, the XOS is tethered, meaning it has no onboard power supply. That allows its designers to continually build a more powerful suit without limiting it based on power concerns, though the wearer can't travel very far.
The future: The XOS is already one of the most advanced powered suits (if not the most advanced), though right now that's largely thanks to its tethered power source. A future soldier would not only enjoy increased strength and endurance, but also something just as important: reaction time. The researchers behind the XOS designed it to be responsive down to the second, without any lag, acting like a second skin.
5. Lifesuit (Prototype 14)
Creator: Monty Reed
Powered by: Compressed air allows the suit to move 2.5 miles per hour
What it does: To understand the Lifesuit, you have to know a little about Monty Reed. Once an Army Ranger, he suffered a severe back injury after a parachute crash and was told he'd never walk again. Now he's walking after extensive rehab, but he won't forget that experience — and so the idea of the Lifesuit was born. The latest iteration, Prototype 14 (or LS14), uses a system of compressed air that can automate the process as well as allow the wearer to pick up objects as heavy as 200 pounds, just like the XOS and the HULC.
The future: Unlike the XOS and the HULC, the Lifesuit isn't being produced with the military in mind. Instead, Monty Reed is looking to replace the wheelchair. His exoskeleton would let those who have lost the ability to walk or have been partially paralyzed get their mobility back. Three variants of the Lifesuit are planned, including the Home Suit, which would be like a walking wheelchair; the Rescue Suit, which would aid workers during disaster recovery, allowing them to lift and clear rubble with ease; and the Rehab Suit, which helps everyone from the elderly and paraplegics train their bodies.