One of the more interesting meetings SOFREP had this past week at the SOFIC conference was with Lockheed Martin. SOFIC 2017 for those who don’t already know is the Special Operations Command’s industry conference where the best of the best in terms of arms and equipment try to sell their latest gear to the military, specifically the Special Operations Forces. While most people think of Lockheed as being involved only in the aerospace industry, one of their more intriguing concepts is coming to life that will greatly benefit SOF troops both in the field and after retirement.
Lockheed is working on a very doable project that deals with an exoskeleton that will greatly enable special operators the ability to carry heavy loads for long distances without using up their own energy, especially when climbing steep inclines. Operators can climb 60-degree gradients without a loss of energy from a human standpoint or as the company said, they want to maximize the metabolic efficiency of the operator.
Don’t confuse the Lockheed version of the exoskeleton with the TALOS “Iron Man” suit that is many years away from seeing a practical application in the field. TALOS is going to be a fully armored suit that must be constructed to the operator’s specific dimensions. And currently, it weighs 600 pounds. Lockheed’s exoskeleton, the FORTIS Knee Stress Release Device (K-SRD) much lighter, and only covers from the hips down.
Lockheed says the K-SRD system is a computer-controlled exoskeleton that counteracts overstress on the lower back and legs and increases mobility and load-carrying capability. It boosts leg capacity for physically demanding tasks that require repetitive or continuous kneeling or squatting, or lifting, dragging, carrying, or climbing with heavy loads.
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. FORTIS K-SRD ultimately reduces the energy needed to cross terrain, squat or kneel. These benefits are most noticeable when ascending or descending stairs or navigating inclined surfaces.
Versions of the exoskeleton are also available for industrial workers and first responders who have to perform strenuous tasks in difficult environments
It is easily adaptable to any operator and allows a much more robust, nimble, and flexible system. The company is already in the testing phase and had some Tier 1 operators running thru a sewer system with this equipment. As the company rep was talking to the commander of the Tier 1 outfit, an operator had tried it on and within five minutes was doing plyometrics. He completed a standing jump from the floor to the top of a table, similar to a CrossFit box jump. He reportedly turned to his commander and said, “I want one of these.”
The company has pushed its testing out to other deployable units and has 70 pieces in a testing phase with an Army unit as well as with the Tier 1 unit. But perhaps the best news to come out of this was the application for the veteran. Lockheed’s rep told SOFREP that their vision is to have their exoskeleton carry the Warfighter into retirement. He said that with the number of operators that either lose limbs in combat or lose the use of them, the exoskeleton will be their way of leading productive lives and being self-sufficient.
Lockheed’s rep explained that like many ex-operators, he too suffers from debilitating knee pain. He wanted to test the suit himself. At his home, he strapped it on and leaped from the top of his stairs on the second level of his house down to the landing on the first level without any discomfort or problem. As SOFREP’s Derek Gannon said at the conference, “This is the Six-Million Dollar Man for us older guys.”
The power pack for the exoskeleton is easily replaceable and each battery pack lasts six to eight hours. It is much more energy efficient. For comparison, the TALOS has 12 motorcycle size batteries and lasts only an hour as currently configured.
It will be tested very soon in airborne operations and SOFREP’s Derek Gannon will get the tour of the facility very soon in the coming weeks and will get the opportunity to put the K-SRD thru its paces and you’ll be able to read about it on SOFREP. It is a much more manageable system than the TALOS. It isn’t nearly as cumbersome and is already in the testing phase. Between the operators and conventional troops putting the system thru the testing cycles, it shouldn’t be long for Lockheed to have any kinks worked out and having a prototype ready for testing in the field.
So, what is in store for the operators of today and future operators of tomorrow? They should have a very workable system for the troops to use in operations where they’re going to be required to carry a lot of weight while carrying heavier loads. Working in mountainous terrain going up and down steep inclines will mean less wear and tear on the soldiers’ joints and they will arrive fresher than ever before.
And looking at the photos of the system that the soldiers are testing now, the equipment isn’t bulky and allows the operator to be as nimble and agile moving thru tight quarters was without it. And if, as many operators will at some point in their career, get injured, the K-SRD will be available for veterans to help them keep their mobility even after their careers in the military are long over. That was perhaps the best-selling point of all.
Lockheed Martin is building a piece of equipment that will allow the humans operating it to do so without being subjected to undue physical stress and the threat of long-term injury. And if an operator does suffer a lower body injury, this equipment will help them cope with the outside world.
And Lockheed Martin’s commitment to the veterans after their service ties in perfectly with SOF Truth #1: Humans are more important than hardware.