Performance enhancing suits have long been used in athletics—this year’s Olympics saw a body suit meant to reduce drag while running, hot pants to keep cyclists’ muscles warm, and the Fastskin3 system to help Michael Phelps and others swim faster. Although used in different sports, these wearable technologies all have one thing in common: they work with the athlete’s body to help him or her reach optimal performance levels. In another high-intensity field, scientists are working to help improve physical endurance through flexible, smart suits that respond and act with the body’s natural cues. That field? The Armed Forces.
As a part of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s (DARPA) Warrior Web program, researchers from the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University have been awarded a contract worth $2.6 million to create a “wearable system that would potentially delay the onset of fatigue, enabling soldiers to walk longer distances, and also potentially improve the body’s resistance to injuries while carrying loads.”
Robotic exoskeletons have been a longstanding goal for the military. Until recently, they’ve faced several major obstacles. Existing ‘Super Suits’ often fail because of their weight—which is ironic, considering they’re meant to alleviate the stress of heavy burdens, not add to them—but when they’re not actively running, they just create excess weight on top of a soldier’s already substantial load. And because they require a considerable amount of power to operate, extended use in the field would mean that extra batteries have to be factored in as well. Finally, even when these suits are active and doing their jobs, they don’t have the response time or range of movement that a human body does, which is especially crucial in live combat situations.
Watch a video of an existing exoskeleton, the Raytheon Exoskeleton below:
The Wyss suit is still just a concept and some of these limitations—such as the battery issue—will surely have to be resolved in the lab, but the ideas that won the award stem from the fact that the suit will be soft and flexible, working with the soldiers’ bodies instead of adding more gear and bulk to their frames.
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