PARIS — One of the U.S. Army’s top robotics experts is pushing the service to develop a “Warrior Suit,” a long dreamed-of exoskeleton that could help boost soldiers’ physical characteristics, and said the first steps toward launching such a program could come as soon as next year.
Military leaders have tried for nearly a decade to build an exoskeleton, sometimes cheekily called an Iron Man suit, to lighten the load for dismounted infantrymen. Variations of the idea had attracted the attention of Gen. Mark Milley, when he was chief of staff of the Army, and of U.S. Special Operations Command, which tried to build a suit known as the Tactical Assault Light Operator Suit, or TALOS.
In 2013, U.S. Special Operations Command sought proposals for TALOS, looking for a range of technologies that would minimize traumatic brain injury, reduce electromagnetic and acoustic signature and protect against advanced rifle rounds.
After five years, that program was replaced by another effort, the Hyper Enabled Operator, which had nothing to do with making troops more physically adept and instead focused on feeding them data for making better decisions.
But now, Ted Maciuba, deputy director of robotics requirements for the Maneuver Capability Development Integration Directorate at Army Futures Command, said that technology has advanced enough for the Army to slowly begin piecing together a version of the suit.
Speaking Wednesday at the Eurosatory trade show here, Maciuba listed more than 30 objectives for his team at Fort Benning in Georgia on a slide labeled “Maneuver Robotics, Programs, Initiatives and Strategy.” The very last line read: “Develop and field a Warrior Suit.”
“We will build that Warrior Suit in baby steps,” he said. “The first thing is: how are you going to allow a soldier to carry that extra 50 pounds and not feel like they’re carrying it? And then we will work our way up to upper body and we will start to integrate it so that it will be a Warrior Suit by 2040-ish. We have to take it in small steps.”
Maciuba said the directorate has a draft requirements document as well as data that shows current technology can reduce a soldier’s perceived load by about 20 percent.
In an interview with Defense News following his speech, Maciuba said the Army would build the suit “joint-by-joint.”
“What we have to do is actually pull the trigger, put out a requirements document that will spur industry to innovate, and then give us a solution. And I would hope that we’d be able to do that within the next year to 18 months,” he said. “The problem is we don’t know what we don’t know. It has to go out there. Soldiers have to break it. Soldiers have to use it. Soldiers have to give free feedback. And then we see how we go to that next step.”
Maciuba has talked publicly about the possibilities of such a suit for at least four years. He said he was inspired by reading Robert Heinlein’s science fiction novel “Starship Troopers,” in which soldiers wear powered armor, more than 50 years ago.
In a 2018 piece entitled “Help on the Battlefield” for the National Infantry Association, Maciuba included an excerpt from Heinlein’s book, quoting the benefits of such a system. “The beauty of an (exoskeleton is that) you don’t have to think about it. You don’t have to drive it, fly it, conn it, operate it: you just wear it, and it takes orders directly from your muscles,” Heinlein wrote.