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For the U.S. military, a high level of preparedness often requires that infantry solders carry more than 100 pounds of gear during missions. Reducing this physical strain on soldiers is just one reason the U.S. military continues to evaluate exoskeleton technology for defense applications.
A 2017 U.S. Army directive to further evaluate exoskeletons led to an independent analysis of candidate products. To support this effort, the U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development Command Soldier Center (CCDC-SC) is using a formally defined process to evaluate if and how exoskeleton technology will improve specific soldier capabilities. This includes an analysis of candidate exoskeleton mechanical properties, how they integrate with soldier systems, their operational utility, and how soldiers will use them.
One team working closely with the CCDC-SC on this initiative includes members from Boston Engineering, an engineering services firm, the University of Massachusetts at Lowell, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and other academic, industry, and government partners.
Evaluating Commercial Exoskeleton Technology for Military Applications
Boston Engineering’s supporting role in exoskeleton analysis includes:
- Conducting third-party exoskeleton product evaluations for defined military applications
- Gaining soldier feedback regarding exoskeleton performance, ease of use, etc.
- Mapping current exoskeleton capabilities to soldier requirements
- Supporting future program phases, such as optimizing exoskeletons to address military needs
Exoskeletons for Combat Arms
The first project addressed enhanced mobility and stamina for infantry. Boston Engineering analyzed exoskeletons designed to assist in “movement and maneuver” tasks to reduce burden on ankles, knees, and hips.
Exoskeleton testing and evaluation covered ruggedness and reliability, risk/hazard assessment, and power consumption analysis. To measure acoustics at various stages of product power and energy use, Boston Engineering used reverberation test rooms at a Nationally Recognized Testing Laboratory (NRTL) to conduct its research. The usability/operational focus areas included the ability for soldiers to put on and take off the exoskeletons quickly.
ln addition to running numerous objective lab-based exoskeleton performance tests, the CCDC-SC also conducted considerable user feedback assessments to better gauge performance benefits for soldiers. These assessments, or Soldier Touch Points (STPs), are critical to the Army Futures Command principles for improving technology transition from research and development to fielding. This first round of STPs involved evaluating the Dephy ExoBoot and Lockheed Martin’s ONYX.
While evaluating how exoskeletons reduce the physical burden for combat-duty soldiers, the exercises also introduced how the technology may also reduce cognitive load.
Testing of the two “movement and maneuver” exoskeletons took place at Ft. Drum, New York with the 10th Mountain Division (light infantry), and at Ft. Devens in Massachusetts. More than 250 soldiers wore the systems as part of this first robotic exoskeleton vetting phase that kicked off in 2018 and concluded in 2019.
The exoskeleton STPs provided operational and technology immersion on both infantry maneuvers and technology demonstrations. The team observed soldiers wearing exoskeletons while performing standard soldier and occupational tasks. In addition, it provided an interactive forum to get soldiers’ candid feedback.
While evaluating how exoskeletons reduce the physical burden for combat-duty soldiers, the exercises also introduced how the technology may also reduce cognitive load. And although responses from individuals are subjective, Boston Engineering and CCDC-SC use a standard model to measure feedback. The CCDC-SC and other military teams will continue STPs to further refine exoskeleton requirements and capabilities for infantry applications.
Exoskeletons for Sustainment and Logistics
Under CCDC-SC’s direction, Boston Engineering is also conducting similar analysis for sustainment and logistics activities that require lifting and carrying, and long periods of overhead work. Exoskeletons that best meet these needs typically focus on providing support to the upper body, lower back, and hips.
Phase I of this new program includes 1) procuring relevant exoskeleton/exosuit products, 2) working with vendors to understand and test their capabilities, 3) and performing a comprehensive engineering analysis.
In addition, Boston Engineering is developing test plans to evaluate exoskeleton performance by quantifying the bio-mechanical and physiological demands on the Soldier while using the product. This effort will include collaboration with the UMass Lowell NERVE Center, which is a robotics testing and research facility focused on evaluating robotic capabilities, human performance, and human-robot interaction (HRI). These 2020 efforts will be critical in determining which designs will be implemented in future STPs.
The Path Forward
Military agencies continue to gain valuable insights based on soldier feedback. Additional testing to measure the physiological demands on soldiers using exoskeletons will help to refine Technology Readiness Level (TRL) requirements for defined exoskeleton applications.
Under the direction of CCDC-SC, Boston Engineering and other collaborators also continue to incorporate soldiers’ feedback to enhance battlefield lethality, survivability, readiness, and mission performance. This process of “accelerating innovation” by actively aligning the capabilities of the military, industry academic sectors, along with soldier insight, to achieve a common goal, will enable the U.S military to capitalize on exoskeleton capability advances more effectively.
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