How Does The Australian Defence Force's Flexible Exoskeleton Work?

The ability to augment a human's natural physical abilities with an exoskeleton -- an external wearable framework -- is one of the most intriguing areas of research in modern military science, beloved by scientists and science fiction writers alike. Now, like many other countries around the world, Australia is developing its own version.

Gizmodo has previously covered exoskeletons that can help soldiers aim their guns better, assist firefighters in dangerous situations and even make anyone who wears them ten times stronger -- but if these technologies exist, why we aren’t seeing platoons of Iron Man-style super soldiers being deployed already?

“Most [exoskeletons] are complex, require power and increase the user’s energy cost,” explains Australia’s Defence Science and Technology Organisation, known as the DSTO. While electromechanical exoskeletons are great toys for scientists and bored billionaires, the military has generally not been enthusiastic to commit too many resources to them.


First Steps

This is where DSTO’s Operations Exoskeleton (formerly known as the NoREx) comes in. It's a minimalist take on exoskeleton tech that could see action in the field within two years. Presenting the new design in Canberra this week, DSTO’s Tom Chapman gave an extensive list of grievances with ‘traditional’ electro-mechanical exoskeletons: they're “heavy, power hungry and awkward,” sporting joints that can never quite keep up with the human body's complex range of motion. The way that most exoskeletons work today means that, while you may be able to lift ten times the weight you can normally lift, it also takes far more energy to do so.

DSTO’s solution to this problem is radically different -- and not least because its take on the exoskeleton is entirely non-powered. Instead of augmenting the wearer’s physical capabilities, the Operations Exoskeleton instead aims to reduce physical strain and with it the likelihood of injury or fatigue. If other military exoskeletons bring to mind science fiction’s beloved power suit, the DSTO’s take on it is closer to fictional tech that makes heavy burdens weightless.

The Operations Exoskeleton can’t bear 100% of the weight of a pack -- at least not yet. It’s currently closer to 66%, but that's not to be sniffed at. That's still a huge improvement to carrying that weight on our relatively flimsy human frames. For an exoskeleton that allows a soldier to retain much of their natural mobility, needs no external power to run and weighs barely 3kg, the Operations Exoskeleton could be ground-breaking.

Aussie soldiers can be required to carry more than 85kg into combat on a regular basis. For reference, that suitcase most people would complain bitterly about lugging 500 metres to bag check at the airport is likely under 21kg, the standard weight limit for most airlines. This exoskeleton’s ability to ease more than 50kg of the weight of a pack is going to be quite literally a weight off our troop's shoulders.

The suit’s system of flexible cables work passively, transferring part of this carried weight directly to the ground. The cables run through the exoskeleton down the back and legs to the bottom of the system, bypassing the soldier's body and transferring load force directly to the ground.

It may not have the raw power of the Iron Man suit being developed by the US Army, but the Operations Exoskeleton still manages to achieve high tech results with low tech concepts.

Don’t be surprised if this technology finds a multitude of civilian applications as well -- backpackers or hikers with a long journey ahead of them might find it particularly useful. The Australian Defence Science and Technology Organisation only has a proof of concept at the moment and, as Chapman noted during the tech pitch Gizmodo attended, using it apparently feels "really weird". The Operations Exoskeleton is one of the most functional exoskeleton designs currently being developed, so we'll be watching the progress closely.