Unless you've been there yourself, it's hard to imagine being a soldier in the field, trekking through rugged terrain while carrying gear weighing 100 lbs (45.35 kg) and beyond. There has a been a lot of research into exoskeletons over the years to alleviate these heavy loads, but strapping a person into a robotic outfit just isn't practical in a combat zone yet. Instead, DARPA's Warrior Web program aims to build a lightweight suit that improves a soldier's endurance and overall effectiveness, while preventing injuries.
The basic goal of the Warrior Web program is to produce a soft, flexible suit that can be worn underneath clothes to redistribute the wearer's weight without any added discomfort. Ideally, the final suit would specifically accommodate the soft tissues connected to the skeletal system as well as ankle, knee, and hip joints to reduce the chance of injury. The developers would also like the suit to augment the wearer's muscle movements and detect any injuries, while only requiring 100W of electric power or less from a small battery.
The project seems similar to Harvard's "smart suit," which was also funded by DARPA, but the Warrior Web adds more electronics and focuses on carrying abilities. Though the program is mainly geared towards improving soldiers' effectiveness in combat, DARPA is also exploring how the suit could be used to help locate and heal certain injuries.
Researchers are currently working on identifying which features would be absolutely required for the Warrior Web to function correctly, and then producing them. Their goal is to provide five essential components to the user: core injury mitigation technologies, comprehensive analytical representations, regenerative actuation, adaptive sensing and control, and a suit human-to-wearer interface.
Over the past five months, the US Army Research Laboratory Human Research and Engineering Directorate (ARL HRED) has been evaluating a number of prototypes to determine which approaches would work best to meet the program's goals. Using a motion capture system and numerous sensors, the research team has been studying how various devices affect a soldier's gait, balance, oxygen consumption, and muscle activity, among other traits. Later this year, the group plans to integrate the selected technologies into a wearable suit and begin testing its capabilities under realistic conditions.
The brief video below shows how a prototype Warrior Web is tested while a soldier carries a 61-lb (27.67-kg) load.
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