A lone soldier stands in a dark alley, eyeing a door. Even though he’s covered in bulky armor, he charges forward and bursts through, and is engulfed in a barrage of gunfire. Rather than retreat, the soldier stands tall as bullets ping off him harmlessly.
This isn’t a trailer for the latest superhero movie. It’s an animation produced by the U.S. military, designed to show off its vision for a brawny robotic exoskeleton that it hopes to deploy with elite commandos. Dubbed the Tactical Assault Light Operator Suit, or TALOS, it’s the focus of a multimillion dollar research project catalyzed by a commando’s death during a hostage rescue in Afghanistan. The TALOS’s name pays homage to a metal giant of Greek mythology who guarded the island of Crete, effortlessly circling it three times a day. More casually, it is called the Iron Man suit.
The TALOS is just one part of a much larger, global research push to develop exoskeletons that would endow people with superhuman strength and endurance. But imagining Iron Man in comic books and movies has proven easier than building him. The effort is littered with failures. A predecessor to the TALOS, called the Human Universal Load Carrier (HULC), was shelved after it proved impractical, exhausting users instead of supercharging them. And some scientists are skeptical that the TALOS and similar heavy, hard-bodied exoskeleton designs will work anytime soon, saying they often fail to address fundamental physiological issues.
Improving on the effortlessness of the human stride—little more than a forward lean and a flick of the calf—turns out to be a daunting engineering challenge. Building a machine to help someone with a disability is one thing, but “it’s very difficult from a design perspective to augment human walking and running, because we’re so good at it,” says Hugh Herr, an engineer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge. The exoskeletons developed so far, he says, are too bulky and tend to fight the natural rhythms of the body, which turns them into “fancy exercise machines.”
As a result, some researchers are lowering their sights. They are taking a softer, smaller approach, building suits that resemble running tights hooked to motorized wires, or a modest ankle brace. In just the last few years, they have finally achieved a long-sought goal: creating an exoskeleton that actually saves the user energy while walking on a level treadmill.
That achievement is a long way from a supersoldier smashing through a door, but it is raising hopes that machinery and microprocessors can truly augment a healthy human. “I think we’re in the stage where the Wright brothers can get the plane up for a bit, but it doesn’t stay up for long,” says Dan Ferris, a leading exoskeleton scientist at the University of Michigan (UM), Ann Arbor.
MILITARY LEADERS seeking to give soldiers more strength, stamina, and protection have long dreamed of something similar to Marvel Comics’s Iron Man, whose powers came from a robotic suit. In the late 1960s, the U.S. Office of Naval Research funded development of Hardiman, a massive, 680-kilogram exoskeleton built by General Electric Global Research. Hardiman was ultimately abandoned, but the idea didn’t die.
In 2000, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), a Pentagon agency best known for helping invent the Internet, radar-evading stealth aircraft, and pilotless drones, began funding research into exoskeletons that could improve combat performance. The results included a variety of high-tech hinged metal leg braces. One design from a lab at the University of California (UC), Berkeley, evolved into the HULC.
By 2011, defense contractor Lockheed Martin, which had licensed the rights to use the UC Berkeley system, was ready to test an updated HULC, which featured slimmed-down braces and motor-driven joints, at the U.S. Army’s Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center in Massachusetts.
The hype was substantial. The HULC “will enable soldiers to do things they cannot do today, while helping to protect them from musculoskeletal injuries,” declared Lockheed project manager Jim Ni in a press release. The HULC would enable soldiers to carry 90 kilograms up to 20 kilometers on a single battery charge, the company claimed. (See below for a HULC promotional video.)
The celebration was short-lived. When soldiers strapped into the 40-kilogram suit and walked on a treadmill, tests showed they burned more energy than they did walking unaided. In one trial involving eight HULC wearers, their heart rates jumped by 26% on average, while their oxygen consumption rose 39%, compared with when they didn’t use the machine.
One big problem was that the HULC forced wearers to walk in an unfamiliar way, says Karen Gregorczyk, a biomechanical engineer at the Army’s Natick center who led the tests. That difficulty was compounded by a lack of coordination between human and machine. “It’s trying to kick your leg forward and you’re not ready to kick your leg forward,” says Gregorczyk, who spent a half hour trying the suit. “It was a workout.”
Today, the last of the HULC prototypes are parked at a company lab in Orlando, Florida. Work is also on hold on XOS 2, a similar DARPA-born exoskeleton that Raytheon acquired.
A HULC promotional video:
THE HULC’S DOWNFALL hasn’t stopped the military from trying again to go big. Now, the focus is on the TALOS, a brainchild of former Navy Admiral Bill McRaven, who until last year led the Pentagon’s Special Operations Command (SOCOM). After a SEAL commando died, shot while entering a room during a hostage rescue, McRaven says someone asked him why the military still didn’t have a good way to protect soldiers in those situations. “He said, ‘Where is our Iron Man suit?’” recalls McRaven, now chancellor of the University of Texas system. “I didn’t have a good answer for him.” In early 2013, McRaven’s command launched a 5-year research program.
From the start, the TALOS had a touch of Hollywood, and not just in the promotional video. Among the project’s contractors was Legacy Effects, a California company that built the suits for the Iron Man movies. “Science fiction can drive the science,” McRaven says. “We may never get something that looks just like Iron Man, but that’s what we’re looking for.”
So far, there are few public details about the TALOS’s design. In written responses to questions from Science, Lieutenant Commander Matt Allen, a SOCOM spokesman, painted a picture of a full-body exoskeleton capable of carrying heavy body armor, as well as antennae and computers to provide battlefield information, and sensors to track the soldier’s physical condition. Photos and promotional video of prototypes show devices that bear a strong resemblance to the HULC, with rigid, hinged frames running down the legs.
But Russ Angold, an engineer and co-founder of the Richmond, California, company Ekso Bionics, says the TALOS designers have learned from the shortcomings of past designs. The company was created to commercialize the UC Berkeley exoskeleton, and invented the first HULC. Now, it has contracts to build prototypes for the TALOS. “I think every problem can be solved,” he says. “It’s just a matter of time.”
Researchers are “extensively” investigating tradeoffs between weight, mobility, and endurance, Allen wrote. Although media reports have put the project’s budget at $80 million, Allen wrote “we do not know how much TALOS will cost.”
When the exoskeleton might appear is also unclear. A timetable that calls for producing a fully functional prototype by 2018 “is on track right now,” said Army General Joseph Votel, SOCOM’s current leader, at a conference this past January. But he noted that “many significant challenges remain.”
UM’s Ferris believes the needed technical advances—to shave weight, boost battery performance, and get the machine to move in perfect synchrony with a person—are still far off. “The reality is, they don’t understand the engineering and the science,” he says of SOCOM. “They don’t understand the leap we need to make.” And he estimates that TALOS backers will “need a budget of $500 million to make this happen.” Such concerns got now-retired Senator Tom Coburn (R–OK) to include the TALOS in the 2014 edition of his annual Wastebook of projects he considered government boondoggles.
Scientists at the Natick Army research lab also have expressed concerns. The military still lacks a grasp of the basic biomechanics needed for a successful leg exoskeleton, Gregorczyk and several others concluded in a recent research proposal. The result has been a “best guess” approach that has produced several “poorly functioning devices,” including the HULC. They’re calling for more fundamental studies to understand how an exoskeleton and human leg interact. “I think Iron Man’s too big,” Gregorczyk says. “I think we have to start small and see how that works first.”
Herr, whose MIT lab has built a small, motorized ankle exoskeleton that broke new ground by showing that it could actually improve walking performance, laments the military’s preoccupation with big, bulky designs. “I’ve been passionately trying to convince the [Department of Defense] to just stop obsessing with that type of architecture,” he says.
A MORE PROMISING ALTERNATIVE, some exoskeleton advocates say, can be found in a Cambridge, Massachusetts, lab that looks like a cross between a robotics shop and a fashion design studio. In addition to a treadmill and the usual motors and wiring, engineer Conor Walsh’s space at Harvard University features four sewing machines, bins filled with fabric, and a wheeled rack hung with black clothes.
The clothes are emblematic of a different approach to exoskeleton design. Born of a new DARPA program called Warrior Web, it’s the antithesis of the TALOS. Rather than building a hefty metal machine that bears the weight of a load—and that can get in the way of normal movement—Walsh and his team are using fabric, flexible cables, and small motors to inject an extra shot of energy into each stride while letting a person move freely. These “soft exosuits” weigh just 9 kilograms, and use just 140 watts of electricity—slightly more than a desktop computer. In theory, the suits could mean soldiers arrive at the end of a long patrol less tired and injury-prone.
To demonstrate how it actually works, Walsh’s team let a reporter try out the system. Getting outfitted is a bit like being a model preparing to hit the runway. I pull on a pair of black tights; then Diana Wagner, who’s in charge of the fabric side of the project, laces me into the rest of the outfit. Straps wrap corset-tight around my waist, hips, thighs, and calves. Everything has to be snug and form-fitting so that when the motors start pulling, nothing jerks out of place. Sensors tucked into the bootlaces and thigh straps will monitor my legs’ movements, telling the machine when to kick in.
After 45 minutes of adjusting, I’m ready to climb on the treadmill. Two engineers lower a backpack adorned with boxes and dangling cables onto my shoulders. They latch the cables into connectors on my waist and legs, and on carbon-fiber spurs that jut from the heels of my Army boots. I pose midstride so that the machine can correctly adjust the cables. Then, Ignacio Galiana, one of the engineers, starts the treadmill. I’m walking at a pace of about 5 kilometers an hour.
My first step is met with a surprisingly abrupt yank on my heel. It lets go and almost immediately my other leg is tugged up and back. I keep my balance and settle into a brisk walk, the tiny electric motors and gears keeping time with a frenetic whirring. They retrieve and release the wires with every step, synced to my pace by microprocessors and the motion sensors. Even after a few minutes, each pull is slightly jarring, a bit like being a marionette with four wires controlling my legs. Am I walking in the suit, or is it walking me?
“We’re doing a significant percentage of what your body needs,” Galiana explains. “It takes a little bit to get used to these additional forces and be fully relaxed.”
After 12 minutes on the treadmill, he turns off the exoskeleton as I keep walking. Something unexpected happens. My legs suddenly feel slower, the boots heavier. There is less pep in my stride.
“That’s what we hear often,” Galiana says with a grin. “People feel like they are walking in mud.”
The suit’s benefit, Walsh says, is borne out by the numbers. In a recent test, seven people walking in the suits, and carrying loads equal to 30% of their bodyweight, were on average 7% more efficient than without the suits.
PERFORMING ON A LAB TREADMILL is one thing. But does the soft suit work in the real world?
To answer that question, Walsh and DARPA go to the backwoods of the U.S. Army’s Aberdeen Proving Ground, a sprawling 30,000-hectare base north of Baltimore, Maryland. This past summer, on a humid 28°C morning, 21-year-old U.S. Army Specialist Cacciatore (he wouldn’t give his first name) goes out for a hike. But this is no normal workout. The only thing standard issue is his close-cropped haircut. And he is trailed by a 12-person entourage of Harvard engineers, Army scientists, and DARPA officials, slipping in the mud and swatting mosquitos.
Before setting out in a soft exosuit and gear totaling 40 kilograms, Cacciatore spends 5 minutes in a lab walking and jumping on a treadmill that measures the force of each step. A facemask helps researchers gauge how much oxygen he is using. On another day, he’ll do the same thing, minus the exosuit, to compare the results.
Then, Cacciatore marches at breakneck speed down a muddy path in a tan T-shirt and the black tights, the exosuit’s noisy gears giving him a distinctly robotic air. As he tromps along, two following engineers, laptops suspended from their necks, peer at a collage of graphs tracing the machinery’s performance.
When Cacciatore reaches a downed tree, he easily steps up and over it. The wires go slack because motion sensors detect something other than regular walking.
Observers are impressed. “I’ve gotta tell you, it’s cool,” says Michael LaFiandra, a biomechanics expert and chief of the Dismounted Warrior Branch at the Army Research Laboratory at Aberdeen. “Physical augmentation was kind of a pipe dream. And now it seems like it could be a reality.” (See below for a promotional video showing off another vision of a future exoskeleton.)
Still, there are problems. It’s a prototype, after all, not built to withstand battlefield rigors. Twice during the hike, something malfunctions or breaks. Like a pit crew at the Indianapolis 500, the engineers swarm over the soldier, swiftly making repairs.
Later, Walsh won’t detail the overall result of the tests. “I can say that it was positive,” he allows. The mechanical problems that morning were the only ones in 2 weeks of testing, he says.
Still, Walsh cautions against unrealistic expectations, ticking off a host of challenges. The soft exosuit is programmed for walking, for instance, but not running. It has proven difficult to design a system that kicks in at the right time when someone is traveling over uneven terrain. Some people have an easier time adapting to the suit than others, suggesting any benefit could vary from user to user. And any final version would have to integrate with the many other parts of a military outfit.
The Army’s Gregorczyk offers another sobering list of questions that any real-world Iron Man suit—soft or hard—will have to confront. Could using an exoskeleton cause its own set of injuries? Would the performance benefit outweigh the cost? “Say a device reduces the metabolic cost of a soldier carrying a load by 5%,” she says. “Does that translate into an operational benefit? Does it mean anything?”
Warren Cornwall is a freelance writer in Bellingham, Washington.
Revision Military’s vision of a future exoskeleton:
Warren Cornwall is freelance journalist in Washington State.
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Welcome back to Explicitly Graphic, a monthly column by Cynthia Clark Harvey (who's working on a graphic novel of her own). From time to time, Harvey will review graphic novels, talk to artists, and dive into the scene of all things explicitly graphic. Today, she sits down with author and artist Carol Tyler.
Carol Tyler has stories to tell -- both her own and her parents' -- though it's not always clear cut whose generation lays claim to a particular tale.
Tyler's new graphic novel, "You'll Never Know (Book III), Soldier's Heart," released this week, completes the trilogy about her father's WWII service and its far-reaching effects on her family.
"You'll Never Know" Books 1 and 2 are beautiful, with Tyler's masterful use of color adding mood and emotional texture to every page. But it's the story that pulls the reader through.
See also: - Cartoonist Ted Rall on The Occupy Movement's Flawed Model, Upcoming Elections, and His Latest Work, "The Book of Obama" - Check It Out: Graphic Novels at Phoenix Libraries - Noteworthy Graphic Novels by Women: Recent, Upcoming, and One That I Cannot Friggin' Believe!
Book 2, "Collateral Damage" ended in a place that left me breathless with tension over where Book 3 would take me. Now, my two year wait is nearly over.
I look forward to spending next weekend reading "Soldier's Heart," (Soldier's Heart is the American Civil War term for what is now called PTSD) trusting the sure hands of comics legend Carol Tyler. We spoke recently by phone.
I know your mom died this year. Your dad's still alive? How did your parents feel about these books in which so much is revealed of your family life? Yes, dad's still around. He's 93. Mom saw the artwork for Soldier's Heart before she died. She cried; it had her seal of approval. She was so receptive. I got her to draw a page for the last book. The first book, in '09, 'A Good & Decent Man' - they were both beaming with pride. The second book, 'Collateral Damage' - well, they were both confused by it.
You know, it details the difficulties. It has more about my pain in it. The part where I was talking about my being a little troublemaker, Dad thought it was about Julia [Tyler's daughter with also-legendary cartoonist Justin Green]. I worked on "Soldier's Heart" while Mom was in hospice and finished the very last pages just after she died. Chuck [Dad] read it and wasn't so proud. It gets down to his painful past, his vulnerabilities. He said "I'm not showing that to anybody down at the VA."
Book 2, 'Collateral Damage' features a retelling of "The Hannah Story" [Hannah is Tyler's mother; the story is about the tragic death of two year old Ann, Tyler's oldest sister] which was first published in 1995. This was a stand-alone? I don't know the history. I was asked to contribute to the Drawn & Quarterly anthology. I'd just left a job and I used the luxury of that time to draw the Hannah story.
Carol Tyler's "The Job Thing"
Did your telling that story have anything to do with undertaking your dad's story? Or his opening up to you? No. He never read "The Hannah Story." Mom read it, set it down, walked away and said, "Why did you spend your time doing that?" She also said that Dad wouldn't be able to handle it. Since she passed away, he started to talk about Ann's death. He told me some things I never heard from Mom, but I don't know how much of it is true. Neither of them said anything about "The Hannah Story" after seeing it in Book 2.
I love "Late Bloomer,"  which I didn't find until after the "You'll Never Know" books. Well, some people thought Late Bloomer would be it for me. It's a twenty-year collection of work done while my tot was little. I did it between homework packets and various jobs.
But after all the different jobs [Tyler's first book, "The Job Thing" was published by Fantagraphics, her publisher still, in 1993] you teach comics at the university level now, right? How did that come about? After "Late Bloomer," I realized I really was committed to cartooning. I thought since I know this stuff, I should be teaching it. So I marched into the college and told them that. They said they'd try it with one class. I wrote up the curriculum. I approached it like an elementary teacher with table groups and incentives. We have a lot of fun, and I give them good grades. How can you give a bad grade if they try?
You studied painting but when you first started doing comics, there was no way to reproduce color. How was that transition to a black and white world? Painting stopped when I started comics which had to be done in black and white. I got published in R. Crumb's Weirdo back in the 80s when Aline Crumb was the editor. She'd set deadlines and I'd have to hustle to meet them. I did what I could, always, despite my motherhood responsibilities. Most of that work is in "Late Bloomer." I was glad when scanning technology came along and made it possible to play with color again. But I loved the black & white experience, learning how and when to cross-hatch.
In the YNK books the color is so incredible, which do you prefer? I'm going to give you a roundabout answer. Over the past 10 years, I crossed the State of Indiana twice a month, 100,000 miles worth, going to visit my mom and dad and take care of them in my little pick-up across the great American Midwest. I don't know if you know what's it's like out there . . .
Farmland. There aren't any names on the roads and they just stretch out. So I would simply follow the sun and head west or east, following whatever road was in front of me. I could stop the car in the middle of the road and take pictures of whatever I found intriguing. Everything you want to know about color is there in the landscape.
Yet, after years of these photos, I realized it was a black and white graphic effect that my eye was consistently attracted to. In the [YNK] books I blended my black and white chops with color using 53 custom-mixed inks. I named the colors 'Blood', 'Denim', 'Lucky Forward' and so on. I mixed up enough of each color to make it all the way through - but I didn't know I'd be using these inks for eight years. And each page was so labor intensive, taking anywhere from five to forty hours to complete.
With the ink washes, somehow, though I know that might be far from the truth, every page still has this very spontaneous quality to it. Sometimes, once in awhile, they were. In book one, the one that says, "Not all scars are visible," that was the very last page I did in that book. I put it off until last. I wasn't sure exactly how it was supposed to look. Then one morning I woke up and I knew exactly how to do it and knocked it out rather quickly.
I've turned a few people on to your work, people who never really read graphic novels before, and part of what I think they find extremely appealing is the obviously high level of craftsmanship. I tried to do honor to the craftspeople who came before me. I tried to do the books with the same care that my ancestors took when they did what they did, whether it was fixing the fence or creating the best pie.
Dad was a plumber, most of what he'd do was just covered up when they built the house, but he'd always "wipe the joint," clean off the stuff around where the pipes were put together, even though it was never going to be seen after the walls covered it up. Even if he was down in a ditch putting pipes together he always wiped the joint. Mom, she was what you call "clever." You know clever like she could take a Kentucky Fried Chicken bucket and turn it into a wolf's head for a Red Riding Hood Halloween costume.
How fortunate that while I was writing the books, I could call her: "Mom, I need a line. If Dad says such and such, what would you say?" Even at the end, in the hospital, she was throwing lines at me.
"Late Bloomer" by Carol Tyler
Your stories are at once deeply personal, but also very much about entire generations of Americans. I know you did a lot of research in order to fill in the gaps of your father's WWII experience that he couldn't or wouldn't talk about. I felt a real responsibility to write about ordinary guys like him. There aren't really a lot of books written about the grunts. Yet, my books aren't just about my dad's war experience; they're about how WWII shaped generations. I believe lots of men had PTSD like my Dad. It shut them down inside. If we'd had fully available fathers, emotionally and spiritually, the rebellion of the 60's and 70's maybe wouldn't have happened.
I did a presentation on this concept recently at the Military Writers Society of America. They understood immediately. There are a couple of women who have written about this, Leila Levinson and Carol Schulz Vento: something bad-ass happened to these men, our fathers, and our culture knows its deep imprint.
Are there more projects on the drawing table? Or do you need a rest? I'm exhausted and in mourning. But yes, there are many possibilities. Although I think my next project might be just a bit more about mom and dad. I'm not quite finished with those two yet.
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Carol Tyler's "Soldier's Heart"
Preview of "Soldier's Heart" Book Three by Carol Tyler
"You'll Never Know" book one by Carol Tyler
Cynthia is a freelance writer/artist living in Phoenix. Reading comics has been a lifelong pleasure for Cynthia; creating comics is a more recent pursuit. Cynthia's other job is framing art.