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5:06 pm
Mon August 5, 2013

Special Ops Envisions 'Iron Man'-Like Suit To Protect Troops

Originally published on Mon August 5, 2013 5:24 pm

In the Iron Man movie series, Robert Downey Jr. plays a billionaire working with his trusty robot to build a protective suit that will help him battle evil.

Now, the U.S. Special Operations Command is teaming up with industry, universities and laboratories to see if such a suit can be created for the real world of combat.

Adm. Bill McRaven, who unveiled the idea at a conference in May, says it was inspired by the death of one of his troops in Afghanistan.

"One of our folks going through the door was killed by the Taliban on the other side in an attempt to rescue a hostage," McRaven, the command's top officer, says.

So McRaven challenged those at the conference to come up with better body armor. And he posed this question: "Why haven't we put effort into ensuring particularly that guy going through the door ... is protected to the maximum capability that we can provide him, as a nation?"

That effort is now underway. The Special Operations Command held something of a science fair last month in Tampa, says Jim Geurts, who buys high-tech equipment for the command. At the conference, dozens of technologies were shown off, he says, including "advanced body armor, advance power supply, practical exoskeletons ... [and] different display technologies."

It's all just a concept now, Geurts says. But it's a concept with a name: TALOS, short for tactical assault light operator suit. It will take a year to even select which technologies to use.

"We're not at the Iron Man flying suit, you know, flying at 50,000 feet level," he says.

So, a flying suit is not part of the plan. But the first challenge is to come up with stronger body armor so a commando can survive once he kicks in a door.

Norman Wagner, a professor of chemical engineering at the University of Delaware, is working the problem. He's looking to nanotechnology to create a solution that contains particles smaller than a single red blood cell.

"We're starting with the material that's almost a liquid ceramic," he says.

A liquid that can be dipped in Kevlar fabric — the current building block of body armor and helmets — and make it even tougher, literally the moment a bullet strikes.

"It transitions when you hit it hard," Wagner says. "These particles organize themselves quickly, locally in a way that they can't flow anymore and they become like a solid."

So a liquid becomes a solid to make better armor protection. But the military wants to do more. It wants to make the soldier faster and stronger.

Gareth McKinley, a professor at MIT, works on liquid armor, among other things. He says the suit could include attachable frames on the arms and legs that use hydraulics to greatly increase strength and speed.

"They typically consist of an external skeleton that's attached or bolted onto the human's either upper torso or lower torso," McKinley says.

Sounds a bit like Iron Man, doesn't it?

"It sounds exactly like Iron Man," McKinley says. "The other kind of things that you see in the movies I think that would be more realistic at the moment would be the kind of external suit that Sigourney Weaver wears in Aliens, where it's a large robot that amplifies the motions and lifting capability of a human."

Another function: The commandos need a more complete picture of the battlefield.

So, the suit will likely include a wearable computer, like Google Glass, says Geurts of the Special Operations Command. Instead of a handheld display, commandos could simply look into the corner of their glasses and get updates on things like the location of enemy forces.

But, Geurts cautions people not to expect any of this anytime soon,

"The hope is that we would have some working full-up prototypes in the two- to three-year time frame," he says.

In the meantime, that kind of suit can only be seen at a theater near you.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And now to talk of military tech. The U.S. military wants to create something straight out of Hollywood - a full-body armor suit that could be worn by Green Berets and Navy SEALs on dangerous missions. It would provide better protection from bullets, include computers and sensors, even wearable robotics to make commandos stronger and faster.

NPR's Tom Bowman looks at whether this science fiction could become reality.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "IRON MAN 3")

ROBERT DOWNEY JR.: (as Tony Stark) Engage heads-up display.

PAUL BETTANY: (as Jarvis) Check.

DOWNEY: (as Tony Stark) Import all preferences from home interface.

BETTANY: (as Jarvis) Will do, sir.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: In the movie "Iron Man," Robert Downey Jr. plays a billionaire working with his trusty robot to build a protective suit that will help him battle evil. Now, the U.S. Special Operations Command is teaming up with industry, universities and laboratories to see if such a suit can be created for the real world of combat.

Admiral Bill McRaven is the command's top officer. He unveiled the idea at a conference in May and said it was inspired by the death of one of his troops in Afghanistan.

ADMIRAL BILL MCRAVEN: One of our folks going through the door was killed by the Taliban on the other side in an attempt to rescue a hostage.

BOWMAN: So McRaven challenged those at the conference to come up with better body armor, and he posed this question.

MCRAVEN: Why haven't we put effort into ensuring that, particularly that guy going through the door, in this case, is protected to the maximum capability that we could provide him as a nation?

BOWMAN: Now, that effort has begun. Jim Guerts buys high-tech equipment for the Special Operations Command. He said they held something of a science fair last month in Tampa where dozens of technologies were demonstrated.

JIM GUERTS: Things like advanced body armor, advanced power supply, practical exoskeletons that were being worked on, different display technologies.

BOWMAN: But Guerts says it's all just a concept now, but it's a concept with a name: TALOS. That's short for Tactical Assault Light Operator Suit. It will take a year to even select which technologies to use.

GUERTS: We're not at the "Iron Man" flying suit, you know, flying at 50,000 feet level.

BOWMAN: OK. A flying suit is not part of the plan. But the first challenge is to come up with stronger body armor so a commando can survive once he kicks in a door.

Norman Wagner is working the problem. He's a professor of chemical engineering at the University of Delaware. He's looking to nanotechnology to create a liquid that contains particles smaller than a single red blood cell.

NORMAN WAGNER: We're starting with a material that's almost a liquid ceramic.

BOWMAN: A liquid that can be applied to Kevlar fabric, the current building block of body armor and helmets, and make it even tougher literally the moment a bullet strikes.

WAGNER: It transitions when you hit it hard. These particles organize themselves quickly, locally, in a way that they can't flow anymore, and they become like the solid.

BOWMAN: So a liquid becomes a solid to make better armor protection. But the military wants to do more: make the soldier faster and stronger. Gareth McKinley is an MIT professor. He works on liquid armor, among other things, and he says the suit could also include attachable frames on the arms and legs that use hydraulics to greatly increase strength and speed.

GARETH MCKINLEY: They typically consist of an external skeleton that's attached, bolted on to the human's either upper torso or lower torso.

BOWMAN: It sounds to me like Iron Man.

MCKINLEY: It sounds exactly like Iron Man. The other kind of things that you see in the movies, I think, that would be more realistic at the moment, would be the kind of external suit that Sigourney Weaver wears in "Aliens," where it's a very large robot that amplifies the motions and lifting capability of a human.

BOWMAN: Another function: The commandos need a more complete picture of the battlefield. So Jim Guerts with the Special Operations Command says the suit will likely include a wearable computer, like Google Glass. Instead of a handheld display, commandos could simply look into the corner of their glasses and get updates on things like the location of enemy forces. But Guerts says don't expect any of this anytime soon.

GUERTS: The hope is that we would have some working full-up prototypes in the two- to three-year timeframe.

BOWMAN: In the meantime, that kind of suit can only be seen at a theater near you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "IRON MAN 3")

DOWNEY: (as Tony Stark) All right, what do you say?

BETTANY: (as Jarvis) I have indeed been uploaded, sir. We're online and ready.

BOWMAN: Tom Bowman, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.