Better equipping soldiers in the field has been an important job pretty much ever since there have been soldiers, as improved military might has commonly meant improved might throughout much of the world, economically, politically, and beyond. But whether it's stepping up from stone to bronze or building powered exoskeletons, the practice of improving soldiers continues unabated. The United States Army, meanwhile, is said to be at work on a new kind of armor that will not only make soldiers in the field stronger, but also offer further benefits to protect soldiers in the field.
The armor in question, the Tactical Assault Light Operator Suit (TALOS), is not only reportedly starting with an exoskeleton frame that allows for increased strength for each soldier, but also bringing in a set of smart materials complete with additional sensor technology. The suit also calls for a wearable computer system, in the style of Google Glass, and a wide-area networking capability that allows for information to be passed around the field as required.
The sensors are also called in to monitor certain vital signs about the wearer, like heart rate, hydration levels and even body temperature, ostensibly allowing the user to note when one of these is off expected norms and allowing the user to rectify said deviance where possible, or referring said users to physicians as needed. But there's more going on here than a wearable computer and an exoskeleton.
Reports suggest that part of the TALOS armor may include a new kind of “liquid body armor” currently under development at MIT. Said body armor works by being liquid under normal circumstances, but when an electrical current or magnetic field is applied, the liquid turns into a solid, allowing users to block incoming fire from a much lighter-weight platform. Indeed, according to Sergeant Major Chris Faris with the U.S. Army, “no one industry can build it,” owing to the sheer number of different systems that are involved in the construction and operation of this suit.
Though comparisons have been made to science fiction across the spectrum—from Marvel's “Iron Man” to “Aliens” even down to properties like “Halo” and John Steakley's “Armor”--there's one other piece of science fiction that's giving some pause in the development of the TALOS: “Superiority,” by Arthur Clarke. In “Superiority,” a major figure in a fictional military describes how an enemy managed to defeat a technologically superior force by simply churning out more and simpler devices that regularly worked, as opposed to bringing out new devices that hadn't been fully vetted. It's a cautionary tale for any designer, and reminds us all of the importance of fully testing systems before putting same into wide use.
However, there's no sign that the TALOS is being rushed into production, or even will be available soon. The plan is to get at least some TALOS armor into the field within the next three years, and by then, much of this technology—particularly the wearable computer portion—may be commonplace.
The TALOS suit represents the confluence of several separate technologies—robotics, wearable computers, smart systems—that alone were impressive, but together stand to put out a product beyond many people's expectations. Combinations of technology often produce new and exciting wholes, and this is just one more example of how unexpected combinations make unexpected products.
Edited by Alisen Downey