February 21, 2015      


“The reality still remains that soldiers are going to be carrying a lot of weight.
If we want them to be able to perform their mission and carry this weight,
we need to do something to help them.”
–Michael LaFiandra, chief of the Dismounted Warrior Branch,
U.S. Army Research Laboratory

Super soldier?

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) seeks to create through its Warrior Web program a soft, lightweight undersuit that would help reduce injuries and fatigue and improve a soldier’s ability to efficiently perform his or her missions.

Ekso Bionics (NASDAQ: EKSO), having successfully supplied technology to Warrior Web Task A, has been selected to participate in the second and concluding Warrior Web Task B.

Ekso Bionics will gain $4.5 million in the combined contract for both tasks.

Dual-purpose need

The goal of Warrior Web Task B, says DARPA, will be to integrate “multiple mature component technologies [from Warrior Web Task A] into a system potentially wearable by 90 percent of the U.S. Army population, both male and female.”

Secondly, the Warrior Web undersuit will also act as preventive technology to mitigate musculoskeletal injury. “The number one reason for discharge from the military in recent years is musculoskeletal injury,” said Lt. Col. Joe Hitt, former program manager for the Warrior Web project. “Warrior Web is specifically being designed to address the key injuries at the ankle, knee, hip, lower back and shoulders.”

Warrior Web would protect injury-prone areas by stabilizing and reducing stresses on joints and promoting efficient and safe movement over a wide range of activities, he said.

Back to its roots

In a prior existence (2005), when Ekso Bionics went by the name of Berkeley Bionics, it engineered, under government contract, both the HULC, Human Universal Load Carrier, and the BLEEK, Berkeley Lower Extremity Exoskeleton.

Both were exoskeletons, mainly addressing military warfighter needs, but also providing disaster relief workers, wildfire fighters, and other emergency personnel the ability to carry major loads (upwards of 200 lbs) such as food, rescue equipment, first-aid supplies, communications gear and weaponry with minimal effort over any type of terrain for extended periods of time.

Fast forward to 2011, the company best known today as the maker of the Ekso GT robotic exoskeleton for people with paralysis or lower extremity weakness, went back to its roots working for DARPA (by way of Google-owned Boston Dynamics) on the Warrior Web system, which, when complete, will be a protective undersuit for dismounted troops.

First came Task A

DARPA launched the Warrior Web program in September 2011. Warrior Web Task A focused on developing a mix of core component technologies worn at the ankles, hips, knees and upper body. Component systems within Task A included methods for rapid joint stabilization, functional structures, energy injection, regenerative kinetics, load transfer and distribution, and flexible kinetic and kinematic sensing.

“We’re assessing new technologies that could even allow a soldier to run a four-minute mile,” Hitt said. “For example, we have components such as motors and springs integrated into a suit which will augment the work performed by the muscles in the legs. This may be a pathway to enhancing performance.”

According to Army.Mil, “The initial prototypes went through rigorous evaluation at the Soldier Performance and Equipment Advanced Research Facility at Aberdeen Proving Ground, MD. Nine prototype Warrior Web systems were tested on soldiers over 21 weeks during the first phase of the program.”

Next up, Task B

darpa exosuit

The program’s next phase, Warrior Web Task B: Advanced Technology Development, aims to leverage Task A component technology investments and further advance the development of a fully integrated undersuit system.

Also under consideration is sensor technology that can measure heartbeats, blood pressure and steps taken that might also become part of the new exosuit. Such information may be critical to a small unit leader when soldiers are networked together. A leader would be able to monitor health signs in real time to better evaluate situations and make good decisions.

Task B’s desired end product is to be a soft, lightweight undersuit (like a SCUBA wetsuit) to “help reduce injuries and fatigue and improve a soldier’s ability to efficiently perform their missions.

The garment would protect injury-prone areas and promote efficient and safe movement over a wide range of activities (walking, running, jumping, crawling, etc.) while being comfortable, durable and washable.”