The Real-Life Iron Man Suit
No longer the stuff of superhero comics, the military’s latest soldier defense project is built in part on decades of research and innovation from the connector and cable industry.
For the entire history of warfare, technology has seesawed between the dominance of weapon technology and the dominance of armor technology, and modern war is no exception. Defense schemes like Star Wars in the 1980s proved that the nuclear age wouldn’t mean the end to defensive technology, and more recent incarnations of similar technology like Iron Dome in Israel have carried on the legacy of high-tech defenses against increasingly high-tech weapons. Massive defense schemes like Star Wars and Iron Dome cannot, however, help individual soldiers fighting in modern wars where much of the danger comes not from the monolithic military threats of a state, but rather lurks in every roadside ditch or city building.
The ongoing deaths and injuries of soldiers in these modern combat settings are something US military leaders like General Joseph Votel believe can be reduced with better individual armor technology. General Votel and his predecessor, Admiral William McRaven, created a coalition of government and private industry to produce body armor for soldiers exposed to some of the most dangerous situations in contemporary wars, like those who are the first to enter dangerous buildings. In an interview with CNN, Votel said, “The idea here is looking at all aspects of armor, visibility, communications, situational awareness, and weapons to give that operator the advantage when he is most vulnerable.”
The idea behind the armor suit, called TALOS (Tactical Assault Light Operator Suit), is to protect the soldiers exposed to the greatest threats of injury and death by incorporating a diverse array of cutting-edge technology. That includes armor materials that can harden in a split second, systems that can enhance a soldier’s physical strength, and display systems to feed data about the environment to the soldier, all coupled with supporting technology like power sources and connectors that are both light enough to be worn for extended periods and heavy-duty enough to function for long periods in very harsh conditions.
The project has been underway since at least 2013, with projection of a workable prototype to be ready by 2018. While the military is keeping details of the project largely under wraps, private companies participating in the project have shared some of their designs and prototypes for technologies, including Revision Military’s Kinetic Operations Suit, presented at the 2015 Special Operations Forces Industry Convention. In an interview with Military.com, Revision’s Brian Dowling discussed the design’s powered lower-body exoskeleton, which is able to distribute weight to the waist and incorporates powered actuators to aid in walking. It’s designed to “know when you are about to walk, and it picks your leg up and moves it for you, but it also takes weight from this kit off some of those weak areas like the neck and lower back,” Dowling said.
Meeting New Challenges with Military Connectors
Heavy-duty connector and cable technology will be an integral part of making this suit a functional reality. While the connector industry has a long history of creating products to withstand harsh environments, both for military applications as well as industry, TALOS’s integration of numerous technologies that are truly on the cutting edge will test the abilities of cable and connector companies to produce components that meet military requirements. The combination of the need for miniaturization as well as extreme durability will likely require integrating ideas and technologies currently being developed for consumer products with the industry’s longstanding familiarity with industrial and military durability.
Some companies are well on their way to bridging this gap. In 2014, TE Connectivity launched the Wearables Lab in Menlo Park, Calif., to research wearable technology for consumer, industrial, and defense businesses. The company announced that the first products in production at the Wearables Lab include lightweight and miniaturized power systems, as well as tools to help designers integrate the technology into new products. Currently, the Wearables Lab has wearable solutions for several of the functions of TALOS, including antennas and RF, camera sockets, and battery technology, as well as projects in the works around wireless and power connectivity across textiles, plastics, and other materials.
Innovations in wearables technologies like these, in concert with TE Connectivity’s established defense business that includes rugged components for the current generation of wearable battlefield technology, puts the company in a good position to respond to the even greater demands posed by next-generation wearable technologies like TALOS.
The Latest Chapter in a Decades-Long Legacy
Participation in TALOS and next-generation wearable soldier systems marks only the most recent iteration of the connector and cable industry’s work to accommodate military requirements. Companies like TPC Wire and Cable have been producing components like the company’s circular connectors for more than 50 years. These rugged, molded connectors are used in applications from earth-moving equipment to engines and telecom equipment whenever a high degree of ruggedness is required.
Engineers like TPC’s Engineering Manager Rick Taylor are used to creating custom connectors and cable assemblies for complex projects like TALOS. Says Taylor about specific connector requirements for any ruggedized system like TALOS: “Applications like these typically require the design to be flexible, rugged, and as compact as possible. Connectors must be small, and quick-locking attachment/detachment features would be preferred and would prevent issues resulting from vibration. The smaller the outer diameter of the cable, the better, so that the cable is able to handle high flexing and tension. Using cable that is black in color would also reduce visibility.”
Public (and military) interest in TALOS is understandable for its incredible cool factor, as well as its potential to reduce death and injury to some of the most vulnerable soldiers in the US military. It may not be the real-world incarnation of Marvel’s Tony Stark/Iron Man character just yet, but many of the technologies suggested for the suit’s design, like fabrics that can harden quickly and miniaturized internal combustion engines, seem to mark a revolutionary change in military technology. While the TALOS project may mark a leap, its fruition is grounded in decades of technology and research by companies like TPC Wire and Cable and TE Connectivity. As it turns out, creating components durable enough to depend upon for life and limb in harsh conditions is old hat for the connector industry.
Neil Shurtz is a contributor to Connector+Cable Assembly Supplier based in San Francisco. As a freelancer and in his work in public relations for high-tech companies, he has written about technology in the oil and gas, aerospace, and manufacturing industries. Shurtz specializes in framing complex and niche technical topics in a broader social context.