Defense enthusiasts have often wondered how modern soldiers would look 50 years from now. The common imagination is a soldier equipped with futuristic rifles, rockets, hovering vehicles, and most importantly- a ‘power suit’.
Well, having that ‘power suit’- or also known as exoskeletons – might not be that far away in the future. The U.S. military had indeed been working on its exoskeleton program named ‘TALOS’, a futuristic infantry combat suit that would be bulletproof, weaponized, and capable of mounting weapons, and monitor vitals. Still far from being the Iron Man suit, the project could not bear fruit with the current technologies available and was thus canceled.
As the American program was dead before it could yield credible results, the Russians on the other hand, made progress keeping its project on track – with modest but effective technology.
Going ahead with its ‘Ratnik’ combat suits built by the Central Research Institute for Precision Machine Building, or known with its Russian abbreviation TSNIITOCHMASH, the Russian Military has already started its fielding in Syria. TSNIITOCHMASH is a part of the Russian defense giant ROSTEC.
The Ratnik is an unpowered suit which uses springs and intelligent engineering to take off the load from the shoulders of their bearer and is claimed to assist a soldier to even carry out long patrols carrying upto 100 pounds easily.
Being unpowered, the systems are not plagued with the problems faced by the Americans in their failed TALOS program – who tried to build suits using hydraulics and motors which work on electricity and leave their bearer stranded as the battery gets dead in a few hours.
The unpowered suits are seeing their use in the automotive industry, where they are claimed to have reduced the number of back and shoulder injuries and increased efficiency.
Speaking to Forbes, TSNIITOCHMASH CEO Albert Bakov said, “The main challenge consists in choosing materials for exoskeletons. They should be both durable and light”, who did not provide more details about the program. Reiterating the problem faced by the Americans, he added, “A battery of the required capacity and size has not been developed yet” while asserting that the powered version might be developed in the future.
The Russian military had been fielding the early versions of Ratnik named EO-1 in Syria and the system has undergone practical testing and development since then. The EO-1 was used by the Russian military engineers, who had to carry a huge weight while operating the Uran-6 mine-clearing robot.
“Uran-6 operators have to carry a heavy command and control console on their chest,” says Samuel Bendett, an adviser to the think tank CNA’s Russia program, who specializes in Russian unmanned military systems.
The system is said to aid the engineers who carry the robot’s control box which weighs over forty pounds (more than 18 kilos). “The exoskeleton was a perfect stop-gap measure to field right away to meet the warfighter’s demand,” added Bendett.
According to Forbes, the Ratnik exoskeleton only takes a couple of minutes to wear and can be removed instantly with a quick-release mechanism. It can also mount weapons along with bearing weight and costs over $3,500 per unit.
Bendett also said that the Russians are also experimenting with imaginative ideas to mount innovative technologies, including the chameleon camouflage or ability to launch personalized micro-drones.
However, a member of the design team Sergei Smagluk said “We will not have an active exoskeleton with servomotors tomorrow, or even the day after tomorrow. That’s science fiction”, in a statement given to the Russian newspaper RIA Novosti. The Russians are indeed realistic when it comes to deciding timelines and what can actually be achieved.
Even as Americans dropped the idea of TALOS after spending millions, the Russians are already fielding the first modern exoskeletons in the field, gaining practical experience and user trials achieving a vital stepping stone in the development.
“Ambitious projects which aim to deliver radical new capabilities may find it easier to attract funding in the Pentagon’s ecosystem. By the Russian step-by-step approach may have its advantages”, writes David Hambling, a South London based technology journalist.