Famed defense contractor Lockheed Martin has its hands in just about every facet of the American defense apparatus. From the nation’s flag-ship fighter, the F-35, to hypersonic missiles and hardened GPS satellites, the contracting giant’s wide array of specialties are counted on by the U.S. government to maintain the leading edge (or occasionally play catch up) in war fighting technology — and now they’ve set their sights on the war fighter himself. Earlier this week, Lockheed secured another $6.9 million to enhance the Army’s existing ONYX robotic exoskeleton, meant to reduce the stresses experienced by soldiers in combat by providing added strength and support to the lower body.
Unlike the Marvel comics hero Iron Man these suits are so often compared to, ONYX bears a closer resemblance to high-end leg braces than it does to any member of the Avengers. The exoskeleton is worn on just the lower body and uses electrical motors to assist in the wearer’s movements. The suit’s added strength not only allows for increased load carrying, but also dramatically increases the endurance of the wearer, who doesn’t have to work nearly as hard to support or transport the weight of their gear. Simple as that sounds, actually pulling it off can be rather complex.
“Sensors on the exoskeleton report the soldier’s speed, direction, and angle of movement to an onboard computer that drives electro-mechanical actuators at the knees. The exoskeleton delivers the right torque at the right time to assist knee flex and extension,” Steve Balestrieri of SpecialOperations.com explained after meeting with Lockheed’s team.
This endeavor is not to be confused with SOCOM’s ongoing TALOS exoskeleton program, which aims to create something far more “Iron Man” like. TALOS will be a full body suit equipped with ballistic armor and intended for use during specialized combat operations that anticipate heavy resistance. Instead, ONYX could become a lower cost exoskeleton solution intended for mass distribution across the conventional forces. ONYX exosuits could greatly increase the carry capacity and endurance of infantry troops across the board, reducing non-combat related injuries and potentially even the number of support staff needed near the front lines for logistics.
ONYX also beats out TALOS in the affordability bracket because it won’t need to be custom fitted for each user. Based on the images of the ONYX system, it appears to be adjustable from just about every angle, allowing soldiers of different builds the same level of comfort and utility.
The nearly $7 million contract funds Lockheed’s ONYX development through two years, during which time Lockheed will focus primarily on improving the performance of the suit and the durability of the components it’s made up of. While the system has already been tested by special operations troops in controlled settings, the new technology still needs to be hardened if its expected to withstand the long duration lifespans expected of general issue military equipment.
After all, it’s one thing for military gear to work in testing, but it’s entirely another for it to keep working ten years and three Lance Corporals down the line.
See the ONYX system in use in the video below: