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  • Robotic Soldiers Leaping Buildings in a Single Bound? Not Quite
    Posted by Paul McLeary 2:15 PM on Jul 15, 2010

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    The U.S. Army Natick Soldier Center for test and evaluation has awarded Lockheed Martin a $1.1 million contract for further testing of its Human Universal Load Carrier (HULC) advanced robotic exoskeleton. The system helps soldiers carry up to 200 pounds "with minimal effort" by transferring weight from heavy loads to the ground via the battery-powered, titanium legs of the lower-body exoskeleton. Under the contract, the Army will test an upgraded HULC system which includes optimized control software, extended battery life and other improvements over earlier prototypes that will allow for quicker sizing for each individual user.

    The system also contains an advanced onboard micro-computer that ensures the exoskeleton moves in concert with the operator, allowing the user to perform deep squats, crawls and upper-body lifting. The team at Natick will also perform biomechanical testing to measure the energy expended by a HULC user, in addition to testing how long it takes a user to learn how to use the HULC system when carrying various loads and moving at various speeds.

    In 2009, Lockheed signed an agreement with exoskeleton maker -- yes, there apparently are exoskeleton companies out there -- Berkeley Bionics to work on Berkeley's HULC system. According to Berkeley’s Web site, earlier tests conducted by the company show that “the oxygen consumption of the users walking at a speed of 2 MPH, was decreased by 5%~12% when using our Alpha test unit without a payload....The oxygen consumption of these users carrying an 81 pound approach load at a speed of 2MPH was decreased by about 15% when using the prototype HULC.”

    But Lockheed isn’t the only company working on exoskeleton technology. As my Aviation Week colleague Bettina Chavanne pointed out last year, Raytheon has been actively involved in the game for some time, culminating in its full-body XOS Exoskeleton, and DARPA has been fiddling with similar technologies for the past decade. While the technology needed to lift heavy items almost effortlessly is relatively mature on all prototypes so far, the problem, as with many new technologies, now revolves around keeping these battery-powered units powered up long enough for soldiers to be able to utilize them in the field for extended periods of time.

    Pic: Lockheed Martin

    Tags: lockheed-martin, raytheon, exoskelton, ar99

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