Science fiction movies are not just a good time pass. They provide ideas for research and an overview of what has already been developed. As an example, the US army was developing an Iron Man like suit between 2013 and 2019. The official name of the suit was TALOS (Tactical Assault Light Operator Suit) Exosuit.
Injury prevention and performance enhancement could only be achieved by using smart materials which are able to, for example, store and release energy at the desired time and rates.
The idea was to combine the products developed in different fields and make a wearable suit. Such a suit could have provided more protection to the soldiers involved in special forces. Technologies involved in this development included energy, materials, sensors and communications. Injury prevention and performance enhancement could only be achieved by using smart materials which are able to, for example, store and release energy at the desired time and rates.
The lack of load-reducing exoskeleton components and power for carrying heavy loads were among the major challenges in this project.
A total of 56 corporations, 16 governments agencies, 13 universities, and 10 national laboratories were involved in this project. After about 6 years of research and development, the project has apparently been stopped. The most probable reason was that the technological advancements in different fields were not at such a level that they can be put together for making a product like Iron Man’s suit. The lack of load-reducing exoskeleton components and power for carrying heavy loads were among the major hurdles in this project.
Nevertheless, the project has made some real progress in the development of a lightweight body armor that will help in the near future to make TALOS a reality.
PowerWalk can produce 10-12 W of power using the motion of human knees. This power is enough to charge 4 Smartphones.
Power Generating Wearable Devices
With respect to power generation within the wearable devices, solar cells are of high interest. A company named MicroLink Devices has developed a wearable solar panel that can be integrated in the uniform of a soldier. This work was done in collaboration with the US Army’s Communication, Electronics, Research, Development and Engineering Center (CERDEC).
Another company named BionicPower has developed a light-weight wearable device which generates around 10-12 Watts of power from the natural action of walking. The device is sold under the name of PowerWalk. It consists of a gearbox, generator, power-conversion circuit and Li-ion or NiMH battery. Normal rotational speed of the human knee is converted into a higher speed for efficient power generation by the gearbox. The generator converts the mechanical power into electrical power which is then used by the circuit to recharge the batteries. Limitation of this technology seems to be that the soldier wearing PowerWalk on both the legs should be walking at a comfortable pace. Such a walk for an hour can generate power which is enough for charging 4 smartphones.
A special shape-memory alloy (SMA) has been used to make the self-closing buckles of the MIT BioSuit.
Stress Management Wearable Devices
Among soldiers, firemen, and astronauts, stress needs to be managed for successful job completion. Wearable components of Zephyr measure the physiological and biomechanical data that helps in predicting/optimizing/controlling the performance of a human in combat, sports and emergency situations. Heart rate and its variability along with the breathing rate are among the measured variables by the wearable component called the ‘Biomodule’. This physiological data is used (in combination with a GPS) to estimate the core body temperature, calories used, percent of maximum heart rate, heart rate recovery etc.
The MIT BioSuit, under development, is a skintight spacesuit considered as an alternative to the conventional gas-pressurized spacesuits. It allows a reduction in mass while enhancing the mobility of an astronaut thanks to the active compression garment. There are small, spring-like coils in the garment. A special shape-memory alloy (SMA) has been used to make these spring-like coils. In response to heat, these spring-like coils contract and return to their previous shape upon cooling. So far, they have shown this property between 60 – 160°C. This important feature makes the coils act like self-closing buckles. The BioSuit also claims to alleviate the astronaut’s musculoskeletal loss for intravehicular activity (IVA).
In the ATREC (Assessment in Real Time of the Stress in Combatants) project, executed by the Spanish government, monitoring the mental stress of the combatants in real-time is among the main aims. By combining multidisciplinary fields of textile technology, wearable instrumentation, signal processing, pattern recognition, and psychological analysis the project will deliver wearable devices for monitoring the mental stress of the soldiers. So far in this project, one of the wearable devices developed and tested includes a smart textrode chest–strap system with 6 textrodes (which can be repositioned), combined with smart gloves and upper arm straps. This device enables to evaluate physiological stress indicators like: respiration rate, heart rate, skin galvanic response, environmental and surrounding temperature. More recent results obtained in this project can be found here.
The Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies (ISN) of MIT, is developing smart uniforms for the identification of friendly soldiers in action by combining fiber optics and laser technology.
Health Status Monitoring
Defence Research Organization (DRDO), India has been working on the development of a novel uniform called the Teleintimation Garment. Upon development, this garment should be able to monitor the vital parameters (like heart rate, respiration rate etc.) of the soldiers and, in case of injury by a bullet, the bullet penetration inside the soldier. This information can be used to alert the military unit.
Lim et al., have developed an advanced helmet which, in combination with different sensors, can monitor the temperature, oxygen saturation, acceleration, blood flow etc. of the soldier.
It is anticipated that the smart clothing (loaded with different sensors to optimize/enhance the soldier’s performance and protection) will be available to the US army’s combatants by 2025.
Band like electrodes have also been developed and tested to record the brain activity, heart rate and other vital signs of a soldier. The electrodes can be attached to the skin like a band and can transmit the recorded data which is processed to create personalized health alerts to the soldier. If needed, the emergency medical facilities can also be alerted by this data.
The Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies (ISN) of MIT, has been attempting to weave fiber-optics in the uniforms of soldiers for the identification of friendly soldiers in action. The fiber-optic is to hold a signal that could be identified through a laser. When shined upon the soldier’s uniform, it would transmit a friendly signal to the user’s own uniform, identifying the suspected soldier as friendly. No return signal would quickly identify the enemy.
There are numerous other projects which are focused on the development of smart clothing for military applications. It has been anticipated that such a smart clothing (loaded with different sensors to optimize/enhance the soldier’s performance and protection) will be available to the US army’s combatants by 2025.