Thursday, April 19, 2018
Business

In Tampa, U.S. Special Ops seeks next best thing to Iron Man

Thanks to military interests based in Tampa, a real Iron Man suit may someday materialize for elite U.S. soldiers.

The U.S. Special Operations Command at MacDill Air Force Base made a public call last year for prototypes of just such a suit. The project is called TALOS, or Tactical Assault Light Operator Suit.

In the near term, the project wants to find better armor to protect soldiers still most vulnerable on their underarms and flanks. Longer term, SOCOM is pondering engine-powered, cooled exoskeleton-clad troops with Google Glass-style vision and advanced communications features.

"We're trying to achieve a next generation protection system for the soldier," Mike Fieldson, TALOS project manager, recently told Defense News. It is nicknamed the Iron Man suit after the Marvel comics character, Fieldson said, to attract the attention and excitement of industry and academia and, yes, the media.

The TALOS effort was briefly outlined here last fall at a Clearwater Beach event called the Florida Defense & Technology Showcase.

Sounds sci-fi? According to a July 4 Wall Street Journal article, the same design firm that outfitted such movie warriors as the Terminator and RoboCop is using 3-D printers that once produced Iron Man parts to make prototype pieces for SOCom. Officials have examined three designs.

The same article tells how SOCom, during a rapid TALOS prototyping phase in May, took over a warehouse "on the edge of a St. Petersburg lagoon" and covered its walls with inspirational storyboard illustrations of soldiers diving from planes in winged suits.

"We are trying to be revolutionary," Fieldson told the Journal, but there are no current plans for a suit that flies.

Still, MIT scientists are among those working on "liquid metal" (that turns solid in microseconds) as a potential source for TALOS armor. A Canadian researcher is even looking at how insects use exoskeletons so efficiently. Defense giants Raytheon, Lockheed Martin and General Dynamics are also involved.

A March 26 SOCom document outlines nine features wanted in a TALOS suit. They include ideas on how to operate an exoskeleton for mobility and agility; whether batteries or a small attached engine or other source could power such an exoskeleton; and what monitors would be attached to the suit to track the health of both the soldier and his suit.

Bold or bizarre? TALOS raises a few questions.

• How much might this cost? Boatloads. But this is stuff aimed, for now, at the type of special forces of growing military importance.

• Isn't the Pentagon supposed to be more economical? That's a relative term. There's a big cost difference between better armor and a real Iron Man. Of course, the military has spent many millions over the years on dud prototypes.

• Are we getting too far ahead of our own technological capabilities? Maybe.

But this country has always loved to push the tech envelope. And TALOS just might save some more lives along the way — if we can afford it.

Contact Robert Trigaux at [email protected] or (727) 893-8405. Follow @venturetampabay.

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