For the Soldier of Tomorrow: Exoskeletons Research done by the U.S. military laid the groundwork for fiber optics, computers, and the Internet. Now, reports Wired security blogger Noah Shachtman, one promising idea is that of exoskeletons — body coverings that make activities like running and lifting easier, and are lightweight enough that soldiers could actually wear them.
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For the Soldier of Tomorrow: Exoskeletons

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For the Soldier of Tomorrow: Exoskeletons

For the Soldier of Tomorrow: Exoskeletons

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ALISON STEWART, Host:

Listen to this clip from a local TV report in Salt Lake City, Utah about a company that's working on exoskeletons.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO CLIP)

ED YEATES: Each one these ammo cans weighs 72 pounds. Imagine trying to lift a hundred and thirty to 200 of these onto this pallet. Commanding his exoskeleton, Rex does it in this round- robin lifting 35-pound canisters. Several of us moving as fast as we can can't keep up.

STEWART: So, Noah, these things are so amazing to watch in this video, but it's - you put on armor, you think heavy. But you put on one of this, lighter, I can lift things. How can I move faster? How does that work.

NOAH SHACHTMAN: Yeah, it's interesting. Basically, what the armor suit is - what the bat suit is - in this time. There's no little sidekick in short pants helping you out. Instead, it's a series of robots actually. What the exoskeleton really is is a series of robots that works with your musculature to make you stronger or to make you faster.

STEWART: It covers you. It literally - you're sort of back into the suit, it looks like.

SHACHTMAN: Mm-hmm.

STEWART: And then there's these robot arms which shadow your arms. Is it the idea to create a Superman force - I'm going to use as many superheroes as I can...

SHACHTMAN: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

STEWART: ...or is it about daily utility within the army?

SHACHTMAN: Well, I mean, certainly the first idea is to help soldiers that work in warehouses or have to load up jets to help them with a pretty tiring job. Use number two might be out in the field. I recently got back from Iraq, and the amount of stuff that a soldier has got to carry around is really pretty staggering, especially when you figure its 120 degrees in Baghdad. You've got armor, you've got a helmet, you've got ammunition, you've got a very heavy weapon, you've got grenades, you've got just all kinds of stuff. It can add up to 60, 70 pounds, and that's before you put on the backpack. So, if you had something - you had these series of robots that could kind of help you out and make that load feel lighter, especially in all that heat, it could be really helpful.

STEWART: Is the Pentagon investing serious money in this?

SHACHTMAN: Serious money for you and I. For the Pentagon, it's, like, you know, what fell out of their pocket this morning.

STEWART: Really?

SHACHTMAN: Yeah. You know, it's definitely in the millions of dollars. It's in the tens of millions of dollars, let's say, over the long run. But, of course, in a budget that's $500 billion, you know, it's not exactly a new aircraft carrier or another war in the Middle East.

STEWART: Who developed this technology and was this the original intended use for this technology?

SHACHTMAN: So the government backer of the technology is a group called DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. They're the guys that brought you everything from the Internet, to stealth jets, to the computer mouse. Now, they've also had lots of bad ideas along the way, too, like the nuclear hand grenade.

STEWART: Yeah, that was...

SHACHTMAN: Right.

STEWART: ...yeah.

SHACHTMAN: Not so good.

STEWART: Okay, enough said.

SHACHTMAN: And what's really interesting about Sarcos is that they don't just make fighting suits for the military, they also do a lot of stuff in the entertainment industry, and probably their best-known product or device is the dancing fountains at the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas.

STEWART: It's so interesting when you talk about these military applications seeping into real life. We were thinking about this - these exoskeletons for, say, you were in a hospital and you had a seriously obese patient or you needed to move heavy equipment. I mean, these - applications for an exoskeleton really could work their way into daily life - prosthetics.

SHACHTMAN: Right. Prosthetics is actually the most direct...

STEWART: Yeah.

SHACHTMAN: For example, there's a guy up at MIT; his name is Hugh Herr. He was a world champion mountain climber until he lost he legs to frostbite, and so he decided to totally geek out and become an expert in prosthetics. And now he's an MIT professor, and he has these sort of Inspector Gadget legs that allow him to be the best mountain climber - even better than he was before. He is working both on next generation prosthetics and on exoskeletons, and he's using many of the same technologies and the same techniques to do both.

STEWART: All right. I'm going to give you 30 seconds to ask - answer a moral and ethical question. Aren't I nice?

SHACHTMAN: Yeah, real nice.

STEWART: As we're talking about people in Iraq - since you've been to Iraq - who don't have armor on their Humvees, should we even be discussing exoskeletons, the super advanced technology, when we need some very basics for our - the troops?

SHACHTMAN: Yeah, absolutely. Here's the reason why, you know, the Pentagon can't just focus on what's in front of it. The Pentagon has to focus on the future challenges of tomorrow - to sound like some techno nerd. It's got to do that, just like any business has to sink in a certain amount of money to R and D and can't just focus on making next quarter's profits. It's the same thing in the military.

STEWART: That's research and development - for you, folks, out there.

SHACHTMAN: Yeah. The key to their...

STEWART: Hey, Noah Shachtman, contributing editor to Wired magazine, writes the national security blog on Wired.com called the Danger Room. Check it out; its good reading. Thanks for coming in, Noah.

SHACHTMAN: My pleasure.

STEWART: This THE BRYANT PARK PROJECT from NPR News.

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