Exoskeletons: Race of the super soldiers

The military in the USA, China or even Germany uses motorised exoskeletons in logistics, while Russia is said to have already tested them in war.

Russian defence company Rostec is working on an armoured exoskeleton that would cover a soldier’s entire body and provide ballistic protection against fragments. Embedded in fourth-generation combat equipment, human energy consumption could also be significantly reduced in this way. With the new suit, soldiers should be able to hold loads of up to 20 kilograms in their hands for longer periods of time. With the help of the frame strapped to the body, even up to 60 kilograms can be carried. According to Rostec, the accuracy of automatic weapons is also increased.

The deputy general director of Rostec, Vladimir Artyakov, made a corresponding announcement about the motorised body armour to the state news agency RIA Novosti on the occasion of the recent Forum Army-2022. The company had already exhibited the system made of lightweight composite materials for „soldiers of the future“ at the annual sales fair in Moscow last year.

Outer skeletons for support

The technology refers to external skeletons, such as those commonly found in insects as support and protective structures. The suits developed with the help of biomechatronics are used in the civilian sector primarily in logistics. Their joints can be passively supported or driven by electric motors. They are controlled by position and pressure sensors mounted on the feet of the frame, for example.

The state-owned company Rostec manufactures its exoskeletons from ultra-high molecular weight polyethylene. The new model consists of components torso, pelvis, legs, feet, arms and neck, which can be combined to form a complete system. A single torso module, for example, should also be able to be integrated alone into a bulletproof vest.

The system is intended to replace the third-generation combat equipment, known as Sotnik in the Russian military, which has not yet been delivered but is under development. It can reduce musculoskeletal strain by half and energy costs for running and walking by 15%, writes the state-owned defence contractor, founded in 2007.

U.S. combat suit will not be developed further

Rostec describes the new exoskeleton as „semi-active“. In active mode, servo drives support the transport of loads over rough terrain or mountains. Rostec’s film footage shows a soldier equipped in this way swinging firearms, climbing stairs and trudging through terrain. The passive mode is optimised for the ergonomic transport of loads on a flat surface. In this mode, some joints of the exoskeleton are locked.

The US military is also developing powered combat suits, but Russia seems to be well ahead of the United States. Although the Pentagon has been researching powered suits for almost half a century, several developments have not been pursued. These include an armoured exoskeleton called the Tactical Assault Suit for Light Operators (TALOS) for special operations commandos, which was unveiled as a study in 2019.

Deployment in the Syria war

Rostec is not the only Russian company focusing on exoskeletons. TsNiiTochMash, a defence company partly owned by Rostec, is developing the Ratnik-3, a futuristic-looking armoured suit. This is said to be a passive and active system that also includes weapons, various visors and protective gear, heat sources, communication devices and an active hearing protection system.

Military expert Samuel Bendett believes deployments in actual wars are responsible for Russia’s lead over U.S. systems. Rostec has reportedly already successfully tested its system with the heavily protected suits of deminers in Syria from 2017.

Pioneer units have also already been deployed there with a passive exoskeleton, the industry director of Russian Rostec’s armaments, munitions and special chemicals cluster said last year.

Bundeswehr researches with Fraunhofer institutes

Much easier than in armed combat is the use of exoskeletons as an assistance system for military logistics. There they can make physically strenuous postures or the lifting and carrying of objects easier. Together with two Fraunhofer Institutes, the German Armed Forces are also researching an apparatus for weights of up to 40 kilograms, which could be used for „repair work“, for example. Exoskeletons have already significantly reduced the risk of injury and the associated costs in the civilian sector, writes the Fraunhofer Institute for Manufacturing Engineering and Automation, and the military could now also benefit from this.

A similar suit, but capable of carrying twice as much load, is reportedly being tested by the Chinese military. Two years ago, state television showed soldiers from the People’s Liberation Army using exoskeletons to carry boxes weighing 80 kilograms. Military experts suspect that this could have been an explosive ordnance disposal mission.

The same system is said to have been used to transport wounded soldiers on a stretcher in a medical evacuation exercise. Before that, the Chinese Army Equipment Department is said to have held a competition with 50 exoskeleton prototypes to facilitate the hauling of 155-mm grenades for artillery.

Alleged development of cyborg capabilities

In the military, exoskeletons increase the endurance or combat strength of soldiers, but they cannot change the sensation of pain, extreme cold or the need for sleep. However, research is also being done on this, especially in China, according to a 2019 paper by two U.S. scientists. According to this, the People’s Liberation Army wants to further improve the benefits of exoskeletons with techniques such as „gene editing“. The Chinese government dismisses these claims as a „miscellany of lies“. Nevertheless, they have been picked up by various media, accusing the country of researching „super soldiers“ or „super troops“.

In 2015, engineers from the Technical University of Berlin had demonstrated how an exoskeleton is set in motion by its wearer’s concentration on flickering LEDs. In France in 2019, a then 28-year-old paraplegic man controlled an exoskeleton via an interface in his brain. The „mind power“ was determined via two implanted sensors that communicated wirelessly with the apparatus on all four limbs.

Even without gene-manipulating cyborg capabilities, as China is said to develop, armies with sufficient budget are likely to further optimise the cooperation of soldiers and their exoskeleton machines. However, the third-generation combat suits that will enter the Russian military from 2025 onwards and replace the second-generation combat equipment are expected to do without a human-machine interface.

Image: A study of the battle suit Sotnik (Rostec).

Autor: Matthias Monroy

Knowledge worker, activist, editor of the German civil rights journal Bürgerrechte & Polizei/CILIP.

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