Military goes Hollywood to outfit soldiers of future
The designer of the 'Iron Man' suit is among those working on high-tech body armor for elite troops.
By Dion Nissenbaum, The Wall Street Journal
The Oscar-nominated designers at Legacy Effects have outfitted such memorable movie warriors as The Terminator, RoboCop, Captain America and Iron Man.
The special-effects company is now at work on what seems a mission impossible: Building an Iron Man-style suit to protect and propel elite U.S. troops by encasing them in body armor equipped with an agile exoskeleton to enable troops to carry hundreds of pounds of gear.
The 3-D printers that once churned out parts for actor Robert Downey Jr.'s red and gold movie armor are making pieces for a Pentagon prototype. Military officials recently examined three designs, an early step in a project by the U.S. Special Operations Command to create a new generation of protective armor within the next four years.
"We are trying to be revolutionary," said Mike Fieldson, the military's manager of the project known as TALOS, the Tactical Assault Light Operator Suit.
Joining the quest is a far-flung team of bioengineers, combat veterans, tech experts and a Canadian researcher seeking solutions from the secrets of insect armor. The companies include prop makers, small tech firms and such defense titans as Raytheon (RTN), Lockheed Martin (LMT) and General Dynamics (GD)
The suit could change the way the U.S. military fights wars. For years, American forces have worked to shed pounds from the load they carried through the war zones of Iraq and Afghanistan -- more than 125 pounds on some missions, including weapons, electronics and body armor.
Developers of the Iron Man suit say it could weigh as much as 400 pounds, requiring a powered exoskeleton to move the armored troops with speed and agility. The problem is existing exoskeletons can't do the job.
"Hollywood has definitely made the Iron Man suit impossibly thin, impossibly light, impossibly agile and impossibly energy efficient," said Russ Angold, co-founder of Ekso Bionics (EKSO), a Richmond, California, company that primarily designs exoskeletons for medical use. "So we're really trying to solve the problem and ask the question: What would Iron Man look like if it was real?"
This isn't the Pentagon's first crack at a futuristic combat suit. The military has spent tens of millions of dollars over the years on prototypes that didn't work as planned. Past failings have raised concerns among lawmakers about the year-old initiative.
Special Operations Command has so far spent about $10 million. Since it isn't an official Pentagon program, there is no fixed budget. That worries some lawmakers, and the House Armed Services Committee recently asked for a briefing to make sure the project doesn't waste money.
"You can see the long-term vision but, for now, much of it remains in the realm of science fiction and entertainment," said Peter Singer, a senior fellow with the New America Foundation's Future of War project. "There's a long way to go, but the technical barriers are not insurmountable."
One of the biggest hurdles is power. Iron Man's fictional defense contractor Tony Stark developed the mini "arc reactor" -- worn in his chest -- to power the suit. There is no real-world equivalent, and project developers joke about it.
"Iron Man got it right: It's all about the arc reactor," Angold said. "If someone can come up with that it would be fantastic."
Angold and his team work in a converted red brick Ford (F) factory that made tanks during World War II. The office has the feel of a tech startup, with high ceilings, open workspaces and a pool table. Bulky exoskeletons designed in partnership with Lockheed Martin hang on a rack, next to cardboard boxes of junked knee braces, helmets, shoulder pads, boots and hinges from early Iron Man suit designs.
Pentagon researchers estimate they need 365 pounds of batteries to power the kind of suit developers have in mind. Researchers are looking at a small engine, designed for drones, as a substitute.
The vexing power problem has prompted the military to ask a Canadian researcher to develop an unpowered exoskeleton alternative. To help solve the dilemma, the Canadian team is studying sumo wrestlers to figure out how 600-pound men can move so deftly.
"This is a new frontier," said Alain Bujold, founder of Mawashi Protective Clothing, a Quebec company that has developed exoskeletons and protective suits by studying creatures with hard shells -- insects, lobsters and armadillos.
If developers can build a functional suit, it will "change the way that the operator does business -- and probably not in a small way," said one member of U.S. Special Operations Command involved in the program.
The prototypes are designed for three members of Special Operations Forces who are taking part in the testing. The teams have taken computerized body scans and developed mannequins of the men to tailor the suits.
"If we don't do something to help our soldiers they are going to continue to break," said David Audet, an Army official who has spent years overseeing innovative technology programs at the Natick Soldier Research, Development & Engineering Center in Massachusetts. "We're asking them to carry loads that are just absurd."
In May, Audet traveled to a small Vermont dairy farm to meet Iron Man suit developers as they put one of the early designs through its paces at a rudimentary shooting range set up away from the milking barns.
The daylong tests offered a sobering check. A U.S. soldier trying out the suit had trouble running, diving and shooting with the metal exoskeleton strapped to his legs. And that was before he added the cooling system and other advanced components still to come.
"Will you ever have an Iron Man? I don't know," said Brian Dowling, a former Green Beret overseeing the project for Revision Military in Vermont. "But you'll have some greatly improved technology along the way."
The tipping point for the development program came in December 2012, officials said, when members of the SEAL Team Six converged on a compound in eastern Afghanistan to free a Colorado doctor held hostage by militants.
As commandos stormed the compound, and freed the doctor, one SEAL was shot and killed. Afterward, Adm. William McRaven, the head of U.S. Special Operations Command who oversaw the SEAL Team Six raid in Pakistan that killed Osama bin Laden in 2011, decided his forces needed better protection.
"It was one of those incidents where we stepped back and asked, 'What's our long-term vision?' " said James "Hondo" Geurts, the Pentagon official who oversees acquisition programs for Adm. McRaven. "We've done about all we can with our current approach. Is it time to take a bold leap ahead?"
The military has embraced the superhero imagery in its pursuit of the Iron Man suit. The first video to promote the program showed bullets bouncing off an animated Iron Man soldier as he burst through a locked door.
President Barack Obama even invoked the movie hero to a White House audience in February. "I am here to announce that we are building Iron Man," Obama joked, while promoting innovative technology programs. "This has been a secret project we've been working on for a long time. Not really. Maybe. It's classified."
As the project advanced, Angold invited the people who made the original Iron Man suits to join. If Legacy could design functional suits for the movies, he figured, maybe they could do it for the military.
"When you're doing something for a movie it is all make-believe," said Lindsay MacGowan, one of Legacy Effects' founders. Computer-generated special effects take care of the suit's imagined technology, like flying, for instance. "Whereas, for the military," he said, "that's really not going to be the case."
In early May, as the deadline for the first prototypes neared, the U.S. Special Operations Command took over a private warehouse on the edge of a St. Petersburg lagoon, not far from the command's Tampa headquarters. The walls are covered with inspirational storyboard illustrations of soldiers diving from planes in winged suits.
U.S. Special Operations Command is trying to fast-track development by sidestepping traditional contracting rules that can bog down projects in years of proposals, testing and evaluation. They have filled the warehouse with scores of developers divided into teams.
Prop makers use foam helmets and chest plates to test suit designs to see what works. A team led by a onetime Houston Astros player, Brad Chedister, is analyzing the widely criticized Under Armour (UA) body suit designed for U.S. Olympic speed skaters for its insulating properties. Another group is seeing if the drone engine can really power a commando in a heavy, armored suit.
One researcher, whose pastime is Renaissance-era sword fights, donated medieval suits of armor for developers to study.
The prototype suits are unlikely to look as good as anything on the big screen, designers say.
"This one won't be flying anytime soon, and it won't be red or gold, but it will be something that is in the history books," MacGowan said.
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