A radical powered exoskeleton under development for use by the US military is to be fitted with fuel-cell power supplies which will increase its endurance from hours to days - and furnish juice for the burgeoning load of electronics carried by modern soldiers, too.
Global arms behemoth Lockheed, developing the Human Universal Load Carrier (HULC™) after buying the originating firm Berkely Bionics, announced this week that fuel-cell firm Protonex will "develop power supply concepts that will enable the HULC™ robotic exoskeleton to support 72+-hour extended missions". Here's a company promo vid about the HULC:
Protonex has previously worked on military fuel cells for the US Army, using proton-exchange-membrane cells running on reformed methanol fuel. With today's soldiers carrying increasing amounts of portable electronics - night-vision devices, weapon sights, comms - there's an urgent need for options other than carrying mountains of spare batteries or lugging engine-driven generators about.
The HULC powered suit runs on li-ion batteries at present. Though it allows a soldier to march easily with a load of 200lb, it normally runs flat after just a few hours - significantly less if any jogging or running is done.
But Lockheed believe that a fuel cell powered version could go for days on one fill of juice. Even better, it would offer power sockets for all the wearer's other electronics, meaning that spare - or even, perhaps, primary - batteries could be left behind.
Rich Russell, Lockheed bigwig, describes this as a "whole system" approach. "With proper power management systems, the HULC can be used to recharge critical equipment while carrying heavy combat loads on an extended mission," he says.
Stripping the batteries from a soldier or spec-ops trooper's load would free up the entire mighty carrying capacity of the HULC for more attractive options such as armour, weapons etc. We here on the military crazytech desk have previously pointed out that remote-controlled powered gun mounts as light as 55lb can be had, able to handle various heavy weapons normally requiring a tripod or bipod for dismounted infantry use. These would be ideal for installation above a HULC-wearer's shoulder, and easily set up so as to train the big gun to follow a head-mounted monocle pointing rig of some sort.
Other accessories already offered include an armour-plated "ballistic shield" to be mounted in front of a wearer's body, or "heating or cooling systems, sensors and other custom attachments".
The Reg interviewed HULC inventor Russdon Angold in his suit last year. His demonstration confirmed Lockheed's claims that the suit is quite mobile and capable of running, squatting, kneeling etc without difficulty. It offers no assistance to the wearer's arms, but over-the-shoulder frames can be used along with a lifting strop to hoist heavy objects off the ground or support kit in front of the user.
Lockheed reps said the suit was still "in ruggedisation" at that point, however. They envisaged trials to gain input from actual US troops beginning this summer. ®