It's no secret the US military is looking to enhance soldiers of the near-future with the kind of gear and weaponry seen usually in sci-fi (see the TALOS "Iron Man" project as one prime example). But it's latest project is based on something more familiar: the human body. As announced today, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has issued a $2.9 million contract to researchers at Harvard's Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering to develop a flexible robotic exoskeleton that can be worn by soldiers — and eventually civilians — to make them stronger and more resilient. The suit could even help people with mobility issues and paralysis to move again.
In that sense, the Soft Exosuit, as it's known, is similar in its goals to other robotic exoskeletons we've seen and written about before. But unlike many of those suits — which tend to be bulky, heavy and somewhat cumbersome — the Soft Exosuit is specifically designed to be as light and flexible as possible. It fits mostly around a wearer's waist and legs and is made up primarily of textiles woven into straps which contain microprocessors, sensors, and a power supply. The motors that provide additional force and mobility are also located in a strap that goes around the wearer's waist.
Researchers say that the arrangement of straps was chosen to mimic the muscles of the legs and feet and amplify them in intelligent ways. The project already been in the works for a number of years, and researchers already have several working prototypes, but today's award should help move them even further along in their work. That's good news for the military and for the burgeoning field of soft robotics, which is trying to make machines that are more flexible, bendable, and more resilient to damage. For the rest of us puny humans, the ultimate impact of the technology remains a bit squishier.