In the blockbuster action flicks "Iron Man" and "Iron Man II," Tony Stark doesn't need a vat of toxic waste or the bite of a mutated spider to obtain his superpowers. He uses the powers of science and engineering to create a robotic exoskeleton, which gives him superhuman strength, increased endurance, and the ability to fly. Many other science fiction films have featured similar devices--who could forget Ripley's machine-clad fight-to-the-death with the vicious queen in "Aliens"? In "Avatar" and "The Matrix Revolutions" powered exoskeletons are used in combat and for moving cargo.
Surprisingly, these on-screen machines are more science than fiction with one key exception: the power source. Tony Stark uses the fictional "arc reactor"--a fusion reactor--to generate the vast amount of energy needed to power his suit's jet boots, plasma weapons, and on-board computer. But if you could condense a nuclear power plant into a softball-sized reactor, would you really want to put that in your chest? Tony Stark did and managed to not be cooked alive, but in the real world, the heat output of such a device would be problematic to say the least.
In reality, generating that much power for exoskeletons would be overkill. Companies like Raytheon and Lockheed Martin, which are developing real-life exoskeletons for the military, are wrestling with the power-supply problem, but they seem more concerned with reducing power consumption than with finding new energy sources. Running these machines for sustained periods of time in the field is one of the last major hurdles Raytheon's XOS 2, Lockheed Martin's HULC and similar models face before they can be distributed for military and industrial use.
In September, Raytheon revealed its XOS 2 to the public in a demonstration cross-promoting the "Iron Man 2" DVD and Blu-ray release.
In this video, Rex Jameson, Raytheon's test engineer, demonstrates the maneuverability of the suit by lifting weights, running, and punching a speed bag. He also kicked a soccer ball, climbed stairs, and walked on his heels while wearing the suit.
It's been referred to as the real Iron Man, as it's the first full-body exoskeleton. The XOS 2 makes lifting 200 lbs feel like 12 lbs and it allows its wearer to punch through three inches of wood with ease. An internal combustion engine powers the exoskeleton, but the suit must also be plugged into an electrical power source to function. Raytheon is currently developing a battery option, which would be worn in a backpack. Raytheon expects to have a tethered (plugged in) version employed in major military operations in about five years and an untethered version available three to five years after that.
The HULC already runs on a lithium-powered battery lasting up to 8 hours at a time, but Lockheed Martin is looking to extend that to 24 hours. The HULC attaches to the legs and hips and, like the XOS 2, allows the wearer to carry up to 200 lbs effortlessly. Like the "Iron Man" suit, it's made of a titanium alloy and can be quickly put on, removed, or folded up for transport in the field.
Both the HULC and XOS 2 use a computer and a series of sensors to observe the gestures and anticipate the movements of the wearer in real time. Berkeley Bionics, which developed the HULC for Lockheed Martin, used the same technology to design eLEGS, another exoskeleton for the legs, which could replace the wheelchair in the near future. Currently, they're used by a select number of rehabilitation centers, but Berkeley Bionics plans to have them on the market within the next few years. The estimated cost will be close to $100,000 per unit.
Exoskeletons have come a long way in recent years, but could they fly like Iron Man? Raytheon and Lockheed Martin aren't looking to add this feature to their robotic suits any time soon, but the Martin Aircraft Company has made some major headway. They have designed a jetpack that can go up to 8,000 feet high and can travel about 30 miles at 60 mph using its gasoline-powered engine. Like the eLEGS, it would cost around $100,000. Martin Aircraft expects the jetpack's efficiency to improve and costs to go down as they refine the manufacturing process. They're currently developing it for military and civil defense use, but they plan to release it for recreational use in the future. They've performed over 2,500 successful test flights accumulating more than 100 hours in the air. We--or at least the super-affluent among us--could be rocketing off to work within the next decade. Earlier this year, Martin Aircraft signed a joint venture for an overseas jetpack factory. Once production at the new factory begins, they intend to make 500 units for commercial use within three years.
While the real-life exoskeletons may not be as sleek and stylish as the Iron Man version donned by the dashing Tony Stark, they bring us one big step closer to an Iron-Man-like super-soldier. Raytheon is also developing attachable armor for the suit to cover the entire body. The U.S. military has made a major investment in the development of this technology. They see the potential for their soldiers to be faster and stronger than ever before. But paraplegics could benefit the most from these robotic suits, as more compact versions will allow them to wear the mechanical legs under their clothing and be up and walking with a natural gait in no time.
Samantha Johnston is currently studying broadcast and print journalism at UCLA Extension. She has traveled through Greece, Ecuador and Peru studying anthropology and archaeology, and earned her BA from the University of California, Santa Barbara, in 2007. On clear, moonless nights, you'll find her stargazing on Southern California's Mount Pinos.