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Exoskeletons and powered armour

Can we build a real high-tech hero? Exoskeletons and powered armour

Exoskeletons and powered armour

Not all the exoskeleton action is taking place in the US. In Japan, Cyberdyne, a company set up by Professor Sankai of the University of Tsukoba, is manufacturing HAL (Hybrid Assisted Limb, pictured right), a gleaming white suit developed, in Sankai’s words, to “upgrade the existing physical capabilities of the human body.” HAL multiplies the user’s strength by a factor of two to 10, with the exoskeleton supporting its own weight. The suit responds to bio-signals running beneath the human skin, interpreting signals going to the wearer’s muscles to mimic his or her movement exactly.

The HAL suit is powered by a battery lasting between three and five hours, and while the first suits on sale are targeted at the medical industry, future applications will include heavy labour and rescue support. Why not add dispensing justice to the list? Professor Sankai certainly seems confident; he’s already built a factory to produce 500 HAL units every year.

Of course, Iron Man’s suit has another function: keeping Tony Stark safe from terrorist machine-gun fire, plasma whips and missile strikes. In real life, even a nickel-titanium alloy suit might not be of much use here: even if the armour withstood every blow, it would still transfer force to the wearer – but some high-tech padding might help. For instance, a foam of carbon nanotubes – molecular scale tubes of graphite carbon – may be resilient and strong enough to dampen the blow.

There is, however, an alternative to the whole Iron Man concept. The legendary Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) is working with the US military to create a “multi-capability battlesuit” for tomorrow’s troops to wear in the field. Fans of Crysis might like to take a deep breath here: MIT is already talking about nanostructure actuators that could give the wearer inhuman strength, and nanofibre materials that could literally deflect bullets. The battlesuit might even be able to sense toxins in the air and filter them away from the soldier without him or her knowing about it. Frankly, it all makes an Iron Man suit seem so last year, even if the research is years away from bearing real fruit.

For Bruce Wayne, of course, things are easier. In Batman Begins, the Batsuit is based on a ‘Nomex Surivival Suit’, with a neoprene undersuit featuring the same heat-resistant materials used by real firefighters today, covered by bulletproof Kevlar panels and topped with a graphite composite cowl with Kevlar plating - all stuff that's available right now. In The Dark Knight the suit had evolved. In the words of Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), the suit now featured “hardened Kevlar plates over titanium-dipped tri-weave fibres for flexibility” making Batman, “lighter, faster, more agile.

Can we build a real high-tech hero? Exoskeletons and powered armourAll very advanced stuff, but Wayne Industries might want to invest in some more R&D if it wants to keep Batman ahead of the curve. Last year, BAE in Bristol demonstrated an armour system which utilised what’s called 'shear thickening technology.' Here, tiny particles are suspended in a liquid where, in normal conditions, they repel each other slightly. With a sudden impact, however, the particles instaneneously clump together, creating a hard surface that can stop bullets and dissipate the energy of impact. You can see it in action here.

BAE’s scientists have referred to the liquid as “bullet-proof custard” on the basis that the two materials share basic properties (and more than that if my mum is cooking). This liquid, when used to treat Kevlar plates or garments, creates materials which bend and flow until you need them – perfect for the average stealthy super-hero. In ballistics tests with a gas gun firing ball-bearing bullets, 10 layers of treated Kevlar outperformed 31 layers of untreated Kevlar, dissipating more of the bullets energy and lessening the deformation of the plates.

An alternative approach uses what’s called a magnetorheological fluid, where the armour is treated with an oil filled with tiny iron filings. When exposed to a magnetic field, the particles line-up, thickening the fluid and instantly turning thin clothes into solid armour at the flick of a switch. Sadly, while armour and sports equipment which use shear thickening and similar technologies are already entering the market, magnetorheological fluid armour is still a few years away from practical use.
Finally, don’t forget those carbon nanotubes.

Massachusetts-based Nanocomp Technologies has already demonstrated carbon nanotube armour plates capable of stopping 9mm bullets while only a few millimetres thick. Working with the US Army Natick Soldier Systems Centre, Nanocomp hopes that carbon nanotube will be the next-generation of US army body armour. When asked for more details a company spokesman informed us that armour applications were some years away, and might not be suitable for superhero use, but we’re not fooled: a real-life Bruce Wayne is probably getting his first suit as we speak.