In a recent Iron Man comic, the hero is lying beaten on the floor of his enemy's lair, and the head-up display in his armored helmet feeds him the bad news—he's almost out of power. But there's still hope. He jams a finger through the concrete floor into a power line and quickly recharges his suit.
Unfortunately, real-world exoskeletons take more than a stolen jolt to power up, so the first XOS in the field may even be tethered. Obusek envisions this early version to be more of a workhorse than a warrior. A plugged-in suit, borrowing energy from a vehicle or a ship's generator, could help a soldier rapidly unload a helicopter stacked with heavy equipment or repair tanks with broken tracks. Although the Army hopes to begin field-testing this version of the XOS by 2009, Jacobsen and company are still working toward an entirely self-powered version.
This summer, the company will launch a research program with an engine-design firm to develop a generator capable of powering the XOS for hours at a time. Jacobsen won't tell me any more than that, but not just because he's being coy. He'd rather talk about a more interesting challenge than building a robust power supply: cutting the suit's appetite.
Jacobsen sees today's version as a base vehicle that will eventually be modified to fit specific tasks, whether in health care, emergency response, maintenance or war. Future models could even operate autonomously. "You could get out and tell it, 'Why don't you go in that building, because I don't want to,'" he says.
Later, walking through the Raytheon Sarcos lobby, I spot a few animated incarnations of this long-range vision rolling on a flat-screen TV. In the clips, armored soldiers throw heavy missiles on their shoulders, hurdle high walls, speed through combat rolls, even execute graceful backflips. Though encased in an XOS, they look as nimble as NFL cornerbacks. They look like Iron Man.
Contributing editor Gregory Mone has been reading Iron Man comics since he was 10 years old.
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