The US Military Wants an Iron Man Suit? Who Can Make It?

The U.S. military has been spending money for decades trying to make their soldiers stronger, faster and better equipped. This year they've taken it one step further -- asking contractors to build them a real-life Iron Man suit.  

On Sept. 4, the U.S. Special Operations Command issued a notice asking for ideas and prototypes for a "Tactical Light Operator Suit (TALOS)."

In Greek mythology, Talos is the name of a giant bronze man who defended the island of Crete.

"Talos is a USSOCOM effort to provide special operation forces with enhanced mobility and protection in a fully integrated assault suit," reads the release. SOC has also outlined a 12 month deadline for submission of ideas.

"It's exactly like Iron Man." said Lt. Col Karl Borjes, a science advisor at the US Army research, development and engineering command said to the BBC. 

The order outlines a few "areas of interest" they’re looking to focus on. Among other things, they want a suit that will protect soldiers from bullets, download live feeds of video and data from other soldiers or even drones, help them become faster and stronger with small motors in the exoskeleton, provide their own oxygen supply and use sensors to transmit their vital signs back to headquarters.

"I don't think we'll solve every one of these goals immediately," said James Guerts, head of acquisition for the Special Operations Command to the Los Angeles Times , "But we want to always be out ahead of technology,"

If their plans go through, it could be remarkably like the exoskeleton suit created by the fictional engineer/industrialist Tony Stark in the "Iron Man" comic books. But in reality, there is no technology like the fictional "arc reactor" and there are no inventors like Stark.

However, there are many who could take on the job.

Lockheed Martin Corporation (NYSE: LMT) is one of the world's largest military contractors and their Human Universal Load Carrier (or HULC) could be a contender. This exoskeleton allows soldiers to carry 200 pounds for a 12.4 mile hike without feeling the strain.

"We're now seeing a golden age in which we can produce this technology and derive benefit from it," said Keith Maxwell, business development manager for Lockheed, to Bloomberg Businessweek  "there's a host of industries where this works."

Raytheon Co. (NYSE: RTN) is another major military contractor. Their XOS 2 debuted in 2010 is an exoskeleton that uses hydraulic power to give its wearer super-human endurance while moving heavy weights. It can even punch through wood.

Raytheon Co. recently sent the military a video featuring actor Clark Gregg, who plays Agent Coulson in the "Iron Man" movies, using the machine to do different activities. The problem with this option is that it operates on a tether. It has an external power supply and must be plugged in, which is pretty limiting for soldiers' use.

Revision Military makes protective equipment for military and law enforcement. According to the L.A. Times , it was one of the bidders for the Army contract that demonstrated at an earlier conference.

"We're taking the Iron Man concept and bringing it closer to reality," said Brian Dowling, an Army captain who used to work with Special Forces but now works with Revision.

 BAE Systems, another defense contractor, is also in the running -- developing a suit of super-strong body armor. "They want an Iron Man-like suit, they've been quite open about that," said Adarsh Ayyar, an engineer there to the L.A. Times.

"You won't get all of it. It's not going to fly. But I think it's doable," he said. 

There are many non-military companies that have similar technology in the works. Parker-Hannifin Corp. (NYSE:PH), which specializes in motion-control technologies, could also contribute to the design. It's making the attempt to expand into the medical field with products such as the Indego exoskeleton, which is used to help people with spinal injuries regain movement. It's planned to go on sale in 2014, priced around $67,000 USD. Though this is not exactly meant for soldiers, the technology is similar to what the Army is looking for.

Another company called Festo has created an "exohand" that can be used as a robotic arm to help strengthen hand movements through air-powered movement.

Cyberdyne has a device called the Hybrid Assisted Limb (HAL), which was first created as a walking aid. Later, the exoskeleton device was adjusted to protect against radiation and overheating for workers in the Fukushima plant after the disaster. It detects signals from the brain through skin sensors. 

None of these are as cool as a rocket-powered flying suit, but its certainly a start. 

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