WASHINGTON (REUTERS) - The United States army is investing millions of dollars in experimental exoskeleton technology to make soldiers stronger and more resilient, in what experts say is part of a broader push into advanced gear to equip a new generation of "super-soldiers".
The technology is being developed by Lockheed Martin Corp with a licence from Canada-based B-TEMIA, which first developed the exoskeletons to help people with mobility difficulties stemming from medical ailments like multiple sclerosis and severe osteoarthritis.
Worn over a pair of trousers, the battery-operated exoskeleton uses a suite of sensors, artificial intelligence and other technology to aid natural movements.
For the US military, the appeal of such technology is clear: Soldiers now deploy into war zones bogged down by heavy but critical gear like body armour, night-vision goggles and advanced radios.
Altogether, that can weigh anywhere from 40kg to 64kg, when the recommended limit is just 23kg.
"That means when people do show up to the fight, they're fatigued," said Mr Paul Scharre at the Centre for a New American Security, who helped lead a series of studies on exoskeletons and other advanced gear.
"The fundamental challenge we're facing with infantry troops is they're carrying too much weight."
Lockheed Martin said on Thursday (Nov 29) it won a US$6.9 million (S$9.45 million) award from the US Army Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Centre to research and develop the exoskeleton, called ONYX, under a two-year, sole-source agreement.
Mr Keith Maxwell, the exoskeleton technologies manager at Lockheed Martin Missiles and Fire Control, said people in his company's trials who wore the exoskeletons showed far more endurance.
"You get to the fight fresh. You're not worn out," Mr Maxwell said.
Mr Maxwell, who demonstrated a prototype, said each exoskelelton was expected to cost in the tens of thousands of dollars.
B-TEMIA's medically focused system, called Keeogo, is sold in Canada for about C$39,000 (S$40,200), company spokesman Pamela Borges said.
The United States is not the only country looking at exoskeleton technology.
Mr Samuel Bendett at the Centre for Naval Analyses (CNAS), a federally funded US research and development centre, said Russia and China were also investing in exoskeleton technologies, "in parallel" to the US advances.
Russia, in particular, was working on several versions of exoskeletons, including one that it tested recently in Syria, Mr Bendett said.
A video of a Russian version can be seen here.
The CNAS analysis of the exoskeleton was part of a larger look by the Washington-based think tank at next-generation technologies that can aid soldiers, from better helmets to shield them from blast injuries to the introduction of robotic "teammates" to help resupply them in war zones.
The CNAS studies can be seen here.