Challenges of Development

By 2010, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency's (DARPA) exoskeleton project had produced some promising technology. Network World reports that current systems, which weigh about 55 pounds (25 kilograms), can enable human operators to carry 200 pounds (91 kilograms) of weight with little or no effort and dramatically less fatigue. Additionally, the latest exoskeletons are quieter than the typical office printer, and can run at speeds of 10 miles per hour (16 kilometers per hour) and perform squats and crawls, in addition to lifting [source: Heary]. Raytheon was so confident of its prospects that, in 2010, it released a video featuring Clark Gregg, one of the actors from the "Iron Man" movie franchise, doing the narration as a second-generation exoskeleton karate-chopped wood, did pushups and lifted weights [source: Weinberger].

Meanwhile, fellow defense contractor Lockheed Martin is working on a rival exoskeleton designed for heavy lifting, with the ability to transfer the weight from heavy loads to the ground through the robotic legs of the lower-body exoskeleton. The company says that the exoskeleton also is able to perform deep squats, crawls and upper-body lifting with minimal human exertion [source: Lockheed Martin].

These exoskeletal machines would also be equipped with sensors and Global Positioning System (GPS) receivers. Soldiers could use this technology to obtain information about the terrain they're crossing and how to navigate their way to specific locations. DARPA is also developing computerized fabrics that could be used with the exoskeletons to monitor heart and breathing rates.

If the U.S. military has its way, it will have throngs of super soldiers that can jump higher, run faster and lift enormous weight by strapping these exoskeletons to them. Even so, it may be a few years at least before real-life Iron Man makes his way onto a battlefield.

Meanwhile, powered exoskeletons may also provide a huge benefit in peacetime as well, since eventually the technology may enable people with spinal injuries or disabling neuromuscular diseases to lead fuller lives. Berkeley Bionics, for example, is testing eLegs, an exoskeleton powered by a rechargeable battery, which is designed to enable a disabled person to walk, to get up from a sitting position without assistance, and to stand for an extended period of time [source: Berkeley Bionics].