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How to Be All That You Can Be: A Look at the Pentagon’s Five Step Plan For Making Iron Man Real

Peter W. Singer



Jim Rhodes: You’re not a soldier.
Tony Stark: Damn right I’m not. I’m an army.
Iron Man

“The human being is almost singularly pathetic. We lack claws, sport tiny little teeth, and are covered with thin, delicate skin. Most of us can’t even walk outside barefoot.”[1] Roboticist Daniel Wilson is pointing to a singular riddle of humankind’s place on the planet. We are one of the weaker species physically and yet we sit at top of the food chain. The reason is our technology. A saber tooth tiger may be able to chew us to bits, but once that first cave man learned to shake a stick, its time was over. Today, we could literally bomb that tiger back into the Stone Age, that is, if it hadn’t already been made extinct by our stick-wielding ancestors.

And yet, while we have exponentially gone from stick to nuclear bombs in our destructive power, our human bodies aren’t any stronger, faster, better protected, or even that much smarter. About the only things that have even moderately changed about us are our waist sizes and hair to body ratio.

Technology again offers the lure, however, of solving for this weakness of the human body, an idea frequently played with in science fiction. Iron Man is the Marvel comicbook series in which Tony Stark, a playboy industrialist, dons a technologic suit of powered armor. The suit gives him superhuman strength, virtual invulnerability, the ability to fly, and packs an array of weapons. In the comic books, Iron Man uses his suit to battle the communists, a Chinese warlord, Godzilla, and the Incredible Hulk. In the new movie starring Robert Downey Jr. and Gwyneth Paltrow, Iron Man takes on our 21st century versions of arch-villiany: terrorists and an evil CEO.

But Iron Man is no mere fiction. Overcoming our human body’s weakness via technology is a vision into which the Pentagon is today investing literally billions of dollars. As former Air Force Chief of Staff General John Jumper describes, “We must give the individual soldier the same capabilities of stealth and standoff that fighter planes have. We must look at the soldier as the system.”[2] And such dreams of creating technology enhanced supersoldiers are not too far off. What follows is a look at the process of turning Iron Man from science fiction into military reality.

Step I: Get Off The Shelf Gear

The first step in making real such comic book dreams is a program called Land Warrior. In the late 1980s, the Pentagon began to notice that civilians were not only using computers more and more, but increasingly carrying them on their bodies (in the form of cell phones, PDAs, etc.). Starting in 1991, the Army began to explore how it could use such commercial technologies to turn the infantry soldier into a complete weapons system (as opposed to a soldier carrying various weapons). The plan of the Land Warrior was to link together on the solder’s body various small computers, sensors, and equipment that could be bought off the shelf.

The Land Warrior set included a number of components. It had a rifle that mounted a thermal vision sight, video camera, and laser rangefinder/digital compass. This allowed the soldier not only to fight at night and in bad weather, but also use their rifle to beam back what they were seeing to their squad mates and commanders. It had a helmet that carried a sensor display, essentially an eye piece like a monocle that they could flip down and see what the sensors on their rifle’s was seeing, allowing them to shoot around corners as well as download such things as a satellite map of where they were. It had updated body armor that was lighter but more protective (the Army’s new Interceptor gear came from the program) and a GPS for navigation. Linking everything together was an Intel processor that operates on Microsoft Windows, just like most every office drone uses. The soldier controlled everything using a tiny control unit, akin to a computer mouse, that could be attached to a soldier’s belt, forearm, or even gun.

The gear added all sorts of pluses to the fight. As one soldier described, “When a patrol is moving from A to B right now, they would have to stop and take out a map and check it with a GPS devices. For our guys now, we just move. Getting lost is not an issue.”[3] Equally, the video connection allows the soldier to snap a video picture with their rifle’s sights and email it back to base. For example, they might send a picture of a suspected insurgent they’ve spotted to check against an intelligence database or take a photo of an IED to warn the rest of their squad of where it was.

The Land Warrior came with two problems, neither of which is unsurprising. The first is that the system sucked power like Las Vegas in the summertime. The early batteries that the soldier had to carry on their back only gave them 150 minutes worth of power. Newer versions have gotten better, but the soldier still needs to charge up every 4 hours or so. This means that the systems can only be used for short missions or in situations where the soldiers would be fighting alongside vehicles that allowed them to swap power out quickly. The second was that between all the computers and batteries, the overall system weighed around 80 pounds. Again, this limited where the system could be used, as a soldier couldn’t carry both the new gear and all their other packs and rations for a long march.

In 2007, the Land Warrior program was ended. Its systems and technology were rolled into a new program called Future Force Warrior. The Amy decided that using off the shelf technologies wasn’t working out; plus, by the time they fielded the Land Warrior for everyone, what had once seemed futuristic was already becoming antiqued. The irony is that it meant another generation of U.S. soldiers would go into battle without new gear. However, personnel shortages from the “surge” in 2007 meant that even the 4th Brigade Combat Team, an experimental test bed unit for the Land Warrior, was deployed to Iraq. Its units used stripped down version of the Land Warrior to generally positive reviews in battles such as Baquba.

The home for much of the work on the new technologies of the Future Force Warrior system is the Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies at MIT. The program was started in 2002, with a $50 million grant from the Army, the largest ever grant in MIT’s history. Among the consortium working with MIT on the soldier systems are traditional defense firms like Raytheon to unexpected players like DuPont, the plastics company, and Brigham and Women’s Hospital, a leading research hospital of cancer and women’s health issues.

Without any sense of irony, the designers of this system say the ultimate plan of Future Force is to give soldiers near “super-powers.”[4] The system will come with many of the same components as the Land Warrior, just updated and sexed up. For example, while the gun in the old system was planned to be the venerable old M-16, the Future Force Warrior will carry a new “Weapon Subsystem,” that crosses a machine gun with a missile launcher. Most likely using the Metal Storm electrical system, it will shoot either bullets or tiny 15 mm explosive rockets. The advantage of the rockets is that they not only will be able to blow things up, but also are planned to have sensors that guide themselves at any designated target, raising every soldier to the level of an expert marksman. The weapon will also shoot an “electro-dart” that instead of exploding, stuns an enemy with an electrical shock.

The eyepiece for their sensors also drops down from the helmet or is attached to a soldier’s goggles or sunglasses. It is much improved, smaller than an inch, but by being close to the eye giving the visual capabilities of looking at a 17 inch computer screen. Unlike the Land Warrior design, the new eyepiece will be see-through, allowing the soldier to still use the eye looking at the screen for other activities. The reason for this is that testing found that having one eye open and one eye covered was obviously very disorienting for soldiers in the field and essentially limited them to one task at a time, not the best thing for war. Even worse, when trying to use it while riding in vehicles, “soldiers were throwing up all over the place.”[5]

The system will also have the ability to break into multiple screens, the visual equivalents of pop-ups or “picture in a picture.” Just as I can eat popcorn, while I watch an episode of The Hills, while checking the score of the Red Sox game in “picture in a picture” on my TV, a soldier will be able to watch one target with his real eyes, but monitor for any changes in two other targets displayed on their viewscreen.

The sensors will also be a vast improvement. For example, instead of just regular night vision goggles and a video camera mounted on the rifle, the soldiers will be able have the enhanced MANTIS (Multi-spectral Adaptive Networked Tactical Imaging System) sight. Inspired by research into how insects “see” the world, MANTIS is a system which fuses together all the various images that different sensors (such as infrared light, thermal, etc.) detect into one single image. Individually, each of the sensors work well in some environment and poorly in others (infrared, for example, works great in low light, but terribly when there is smoke or dust; the reverse for thermal), but the combination into one gives the soldier the ability to see the world in multiple spectrums, much like the alien super-warrior in the movie Predator. MANTIS comes with a further twist. Each soldier’s helmet in the system is wirelessly linked to those of everyone else in their squad, “so that each person sees what every other person sees.” The system also has “a TiVo-like record and playback capability” that allows the soldiers to rewind what they just saw and give anything that struck them as important an extra look.[6]

If the soldier needs to look further out in the distance, they will be able to use the Cognitive Technology Threat Warning System. These are better known as “Luke’s Binoculars.”[7] The reason they are called this is that researchers got the idea for “smart” binoculars, which not only see can miles in the distance, but also recognize targets and mark threats for the user, from the ones that Luke Skywalker uses in the opening scenes of Star Wars.

Future Force will also carry sensors for other senses. For example, electronic “sniffers” will be able detect and analyze different chemicals that waft over a soldier that their nose might not be sensitive enough to pick up. These include such things as chemical weapons, explosive residue or even an insurgent’s hummus-filled breath. Designers hope that it will eventually give the regular infantryman the ability to sniff out adversaries hiding out on a battlefield, much as the famed Bushmen of Kalahari use scents to hunt down their prey in the wild.

The soldiers will also wear “smart” ear-pieces. These are tiny speakers worn inside their ears like plugs, which beam in radio communications and the like, but are sophisticated enough to screen out any noises that could damage their eardrum (such as a nearby explosion or the soldier’s own gun firing). On the outside of the earplugs are tiny, tunable microphones that can magnify the soldier’s hearing, allowing them, for example, to listen in on a conversation over 100 feet away. A developer in the project describes how raids into houses “used to be really loud affairs. The Marines would be shouting at each other from across the room. Now everybody is just whispering.”[8]

The combination of Future Force’s various sensors will give soldiers the equivalent of Iron Man’s “phera sense,” or what is known in military circles as “augmented reality.”[9] They will be able to sense the real world in a much more enhanced way than ever possible before. For example, when coming to a door in a building, a regular soldier just sees an obstacle. With Future Force sensors, they will also see the door with their left eye, but as they look at it through the clear view screen with right eye, a thermal image will be overlaid it, allowing them to know whether someone is waiting right behind it. Or, the screen might flash a warning from the chemical sensors that explosives are in the vicinity of the door, signaling a booby trap.

The system also allows the passing on of intelligence reports and other information. Icons and others information could be overlaid what they are seeing with their own eyes, akin to seeing the world through a Google Map. For example, as they walk down the street, they would see what any other person would see with their regular vision, but that suspected enemy sniper position in the 3rd floor window might now have a flashing red light appear over it. Even more, the system might integrate AI software into the display, helping the soldier to check what they are seeing against databases in real-time (“The person you are looking at has a 80% identification match to Bin Laden”) or allow live translation of foreign languages in conversations with local civilians (“Translation with 95% reliability: Your mother is a dirty goat herder.”).

The sensors will also monitor the soldiers themselves. For example, the “Warrior Physiological Status Monitoring System” will allow officers back at base to monitor the soldiers’ temperature, hydration, heart rate, and even whether the soldier is standing or lying down (reminiscent of the system in the movie Aliens ). If a soldier is hurt, starting to physically wear down, or just slacking off, the commanders back at the base will know.

Much like Iron Man’s powered armor, future soldiers’ protections will also be computerized. The plan is for new body armor that, instead of Kevlar, is filled with nano-materials that are connected to a computer. It would normally be as flexible as regular uniform made of fabric. But, like how a crash-bag works inside a car, it would activate whenever the system detects a bullet strike and turn as hard as steel in an instant. Bullets would then bounce off the Future Force Warrior like those off of Superman’s chest.

This flexibility creates all sorts of other advantages. While traditional body armor can only take a limited number of strikes from a machine gun before the plate cracks, “When you have a uniform with this new nanotechnology, it can absorb unlimited numbers of machine-gun rounds,” tells the Army’s soldier systems representative “Dutch” DeGay. The pliability could even be controlled. Gloves could turn into real-life brass knuckles, to give them a punch like Mike Tyson. Or, if the soldier gets hurt (such as from tripping on a rock while reading an email with their eyepiece), the uniform could go rigid to create a tourniquet or cast. The fabric could even be woven in with “nanomuscle fibers” that simulate real muscles, giving soldiers more an estimated “25 to 35 percent better lifting capability.”[10]

The incorporation of electronics into the fabric also means that the armored uniform would not just be able to change shapes, but also may even change colors. Already, Fujitsu has made a computer screen that is made of fabric, while the E-Ink company has created ink that actually changes colors depending on its electronic charge. Incorporated into a uniform, such technology could create “chameleon” camouflage. The soldier’s uniform would be able to take the color of whatever is behind them or even form a rough holographic image like that in the movie Predator.

In short, from deflecting bullets to powers of invisibility, as military analyst Max Boot writes, such a suit truly “would give ordinary mortals many of the attributes of comic book superheroes.”[11]

Step II: Build Yourself An ExoSkeleton

The major problem for soldiers using the wearable computer systems like the Land Warrior is that it is, as one book put it, “a heavy load to be luggin’ ‘round on top of all the weapons and shit.”[12]

From this comes the idea of what is called an exoskeleton. Akin to an insect’s hard outer shell, exoskeletons are not merely systems of technology that a soldier carries about on their body like the Land and Future Force Warrior suits. Instead, they are machine suits like what Tony Stark builds to surround and carry the soldier.

Besides Starks’ various Iron Man suits (in the comic books, he has made some 39 versions over the decades, made of everything from standard iron plates to Chobham ceramic plates, much like M-1 Abrams tanks are protected by), the most famous exoskeletons include the robotic cargo loader suit that Sigourney Weaver used to battle the queen bug in Aliens and the Armored Personnel Units that the defenders of Zion use in Matrix: Revolutions (ironically using robotic suits to fight robots). But when it comes to actual development of real exoskeletons, the most influential of the science fiction visions comes from Robert Heinlein and his 1959 novel Starship Troopers.[13] Heinlein envisioned the infantry of the future as wearing technologic suits that make “You look like a big steel gorilla, armed with gorilla-sized weapons.” As the main character describes, “Our suits give us better eyes, better ears, stronger backs (to carry heavier weapons and more ammo), better legs, more intelligence (in the military meaning…), more firepower, greater endurance, less vulnerability… A suit isn’t a space suit – although it can serve as one. It is not primarily armor – although the Knights of the Round Table were not armored as well as we are. It isn’t a tank – but a single M.I. [Mobile Infantry] private could take on a squadron of those things and knock them off unassisted.” The book is so popular among military readers, that it is on almost all the various military professional reading lists and DARPA even footnoted it in a research proposal on turning Heinlein’s vision into reality.

Besides the personal gear a soldier would previously have to carry on their backs, exoskeletons allow all sorts of heavy systems and technologies, that could previously only be mounted on a vehicle, to be carried on the metal frameworks that surround the soldier. As Degay describes, “Now the soldier becomes a walking gun platform.”[14] Also, just like that insect, the framework could also be surrounded by thick armor turning that soldier into a “walking tank.”

One of the most important prototypes of these suits was made by Dr. Yoshiyuki Sankai of Tsukuba, Japan. Inspired by the book 2001, it is known as the HAL suit, short for The Human Assistive Limb. The HAL suit is actually “more like riding a robot than wearing one,” says Sankai.[15] Looking like a cross between a series of knee and elbow braces that athletes wear and a Storm-trooper’s white armor from Star Wars, the HAL works by tracking the human’s movements. Using sensors attached to the wearer’s skin, a bio-cybernetic system detects the electric currents that are released when muscle cells contract or release. The signals are then fed into a control computer (worn on a belt) that triggers an instantaneously matching movement in the robotic arms and legs of the HAL suit.

Another control unit stores the movement patterns of a person, such as their standard gait or jog, allowing it to “predict” the likely move. This allows the HAL robot to move in sync with the person. It also means that people without the ability to send those electric signals from their muscle cells, such as someone who is paralyzed, can use the suit to carry out a standard set of movements.[16]

Powered by just a 100 volt battery, HAL is like wearing the strength of another person, without the weight. Not only does it give rigid upper-body support (so you lift heavy weights the way your gym teacher always told you too), but the actuators in the suit add power enough to lift up another 40 kilograms on top of what ever your puny little girly-man muscles could do before. Similarly, the powered legs only move as fast as your normal leg movements, but by relieving some of the weight, give the wearer far great endurance, especially when carrying heavy objects. A mountaineer getting extra muscle from the HAL suit, for example, was able to carry a Japanese quadriplegic (who had paid to ride piggy back) to the peak of a Swiss mountain.[17]

Sankai was offered funding by both the Pentagon and the Government of South Korea to develop military versions of the suits, but he turned them down. “I am convinced that ethical values and a vision embracing peace, not military goals, must remain at the foundation of any future development of robot technology.”[18] His vision instead is the HAL system being used by construction workers, rescue workers, or even nurses who need to easily lift patients from their beds.

Without military funding, Sankai and his colleagues turned to the private marketplace instead. The suit and its technology were so new that it was perceived as risky by generally conservative Japanese investors and the team could not find enough business partners. So, they have created their own commercial venture for HAL.[19] About as equally disturbing as naming their robot after a computer that goes berserk and kills its own crew, they called the new business Cyberdyne. If this name sounds familiar, it should. It is also the name of the company in the Terminator movies that builds Skynet, the computer system that destroys most of humanity in a nuclear holocaust and then unleashes robots that look like the governor of California to kill all the survivors.

With HAL off limits, closest to the production pipeline for U.S. military users may be the Berkley Lower Extremity Exoskeleton or BLEEX. This is an exoskeleton that comes out of a program started at University of California-Berkeley with $50 million worth of start up funds from DARPA in 2001. Looking a bit like a cheap prop from the movie RoboCop, BLEEX allows a soldier inside the suit to carry 200 pounds as if it weighs 5 pounds. Much like with HAL, the soldier in BLEEX doesn’t control the exoskeleton via a joystick or button; it simply reacts to their normal movements. The whole thing is powered by an Intel Pentium processor, just like a desktop computer.

The heroes in comic books like Iron-Man have all sorts of superpowers beyond just super-strength, and so too does the Pentagon have higher hopes for its exoskeletons. Describes one report, “Superhuman speed is on everyone’s secret list, right up there with x-ray vision and mind control. Humans with super-human speed and the ability to leap over large objects could render themselves even more dynamic, even more dangerous, even more efficient, even more cartoon like than they are now. Who could resist?”[20]

For instance, our wimpy little Achilles tendons allow the average human to run somewhere between 6 to 8 miles an hour and, unless your name is LeBron James, leap only a few feet in the air. New “bionic boots” and “spring walkers” in development are hoped to solve this. These attach outside the leg and mechanically mimic the enlarged Achilles tendon of a kangaroo, one day perhaps giving the wearer the ability to run as fast as 25 miles per hour and leap 7 feet.[21] Describes an MIT scientist of such exoskeleton legs, “…You’ll be able to run anywhere your legs can take you, but without breathing hard. So imagine running through the wilderness, day after day, sixty miles a day, jumping over logs, over rocks.” [22]

If having the speed of the Flash isn’t for you, another superpower under research by DARPA is the “Z-Man project.” As a report noted, “Copyright infringement was probably the only thing that stopped this DARPA program from being called the “Spiderman Project.” Its focus is to give exoskeleton-wearing soldiers of the future the ability to climb up a building without ropes or ladders, akin to a spider that is a man.[23]

Finally, there is the Exoskeleton Flying Vehicle, essentially a flying robotic suit (the model designed by Millennium Jet has canisters packing rotor blades attached to the exoskeleton). As one scientist, described of his dreams of flashing through the air like Iron Man or Superman, “If I’m going to change the world, I certainly want to fly in it.”[24]

Sometimes, though, the military and scientists take these superhero visions too far (thankfully, DARPA has not yet announced an AquaMan program, designed to give Navy SEALs the lame “superpower” of calling sea turtles for help). When the Army-MIT super-soldier project launched, its director, Professor Ned Thomas, extolled, “Imagine the psychological impact upon a foe when encountering squads of seemingly invincible warriors protected by armor and endowed with superhuman capabilities, such as the ability to leap over 20-foot walls.”[25] The problem was that the images his program used on the grant proposal were pretty much lifted from the Radix series, about a female superhero who wears an armored skeleton with just those same superpowers. Comic book creators Ray and Ben Lai threatened the project with a lawsuit, “They’re selling this as science fact while we’re trying to sell it as science fiction. And people don’t even know that we created it in the first place. People might even think we’re copying them.”[26]

Step III: Get Chemical Enhancements

Each year, the leaders of DARPA gather and present to the world the vision of where their research will take it to next. At the opening of DARPA’s 50th anniversary conference in 2007, program manager Michael Callahan announced an ambitious goal to the crowd of 3,000 scientists, business, and military leaders gathered in Anaheim: making soldiers “kill-proof.”

Callahan talked about research into what he called “Inner Armor.” This wasn’t the idea of giving soldiers a kind of armor under their skin like the X-Men character Wolverine, but rather that soldiers would be able to bring to battle the same sort of capabilities that nature has given certain animals. For example, a goose can fly for 5 days without eating, by adjusting their hemoglobin; tiny implants might help a soldier do the same. Similarly, sea lions bodies have a “dive reflex” that allows them to slow their heart rates and steer blood flow towards their cores as they change depths. Callahan described how the bodies of Navy divers might be given a similar “push-button dive reflex,” or how soldiers could fight in the mountains of Afghanistan, without feeling any altitude sickness.

The second part of Callahan’s presentation was on how the body’s natural defense mechanisms could be improved through technology. He described how the military today is only able to protect its troops against “7 of 44 highly dangerous pathogens” and had no way of helping them to resist chemical toxins or radiological poisons. He then discussed how “synthetic vitamins” and “pre-position[ed] universal immune cells” could make a soldier impervious to such attacks.

If wearable computers and exoskeletons were all about adding bits and pieces to the human body, this was the reverse. Science would be used to make the human body itself faster, stronger, smarter, and generally harder to kill. While the comic book inspiration for the other programs were superheroes like Iron Man, Callahan was laying out DARPA’s plan to make Captain America real. In the comic, Steve Rogers was a fine arts student, who wanted to join the fight against the Nazis in World War II. Too weak and small, he was given “Super-Soldier” serum and “Vita-Rays” that transformed his body to the peak of every human attribute. So, unlike a Superman, Captain America has no actual super-powers; he is just a soldier whose physical form was better than everyone else he fought.

DARPA today has a long-term, $3 billion program to help make such a “Metabolically Dominant Soldier.” In other words, the military is studying how to use technology and biology to meld man and machine and transcend the limits of the human body. Described the project director, “My measure of success is that the International Olympic Committee bans everything we do.”[27]

In seeking to enhance the performance of our bodies, the researchers are reaching out to both the chemical and technological worlds. Projects in pipeline range from drugs that will boost muscles and energy by a factor of 10, akin to steroids…on steroids (the project is jokingly termed the “Energizer Bunny in Fatigues”) to wearable, cooling gloves that regulate body temperature and prevent soldiers from getting overheated (and thus tired) even on the hottest desert day.

A major focus is on helping the soldier’s body to better deal with trauma and damage. One such is the “pain vaccines” coming out of a program at Rinat Neuroscience. Researchers are hopeful these “will block the sense of pain for almost a month,” describes DARPA’s Michael Goldblatt.[28] So, if a soldier touched a hot stove, they wo

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