Thinking Tech

Video: Raytheon's real-life Iron Man suit in action

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After nearly ten years of development, Raytheon's powerful, wearable robotic exoskeleton is nearly ready to grant superpowers to soldiers and factory workers alike.

It doesn't have wrist cannons, and it will probably never fly. It isn't quite ready for battle, nor will it make (most) ladies swoon. But Raytheon's XOS 2 exoskeleton, the the next refinement of 2008's XOS robo-suit, lets users easily lift hundreds of pounds with a single hand, and punch harder than a heavyweight boxer.

The project, like seemingly every borderline sci-fi contraption in development today, has its roots in a DARPA request. The agency solicited various designs for a powered exoskeleton all the way back in 2000, and has been funding this design ever since. The basis for the XOS suit was conceived by a company called Sarcos, which was later subsumed into the Raytheon empire.

The suit's primary purpose is to make heaving lifting easier, which is accomplishes using a powerful hydraulic pumps connected to a sturdy, Mecha-like frame.

The XOS 2 bears a strong resemblance to its predecessor--a sign that the project is maturing, not stagnating. The latest upgrades, according to Dr Fraser Smith, VP of Operations for Raytheon Sarcos, are meant to be subtle:

The first exoskeleton was essentially a proof of concept. It shows that our vision could be translated into reality, that we could augment the wearer's capabilities without impeding his or her natural range of motion or reflexes. XOS 2 is lighter, faster, and stronger, yet it uses 50% less power. And its enhanced design also means that it's more resistant to environmental damage.

In real terms, the differences are actually kind of staggering: While the previous suit could make 60 pounds feel like ten; the new one can take that same amount of effort and lift 170. It manages this while using just half the power, though it's still not truly autonomous, unable operate unless hooked by cable to an external power source.

The suit is evidently easy to use and more comfortable than you might expect of a 150-pound metal body suit. Its test engineer, Rex Jameson, says wearing it "doesn’t feel any different in terms of effort whether you throw a huge payload on the back of the suit or walk around with a single weight in each hand," Essentially, "I feel like me, only a faster, stronger version of me."

Reducing power consumption is likely to become a singular focus for the project, since the still-high demands of the suit keep it tethered to power supplies, meaning it's all but useless on the battlefield. But a tethered suit could still be useful in assembly line or loading scenarios, where the suit could make short work of repetitive movement and lifting. Dr Smith sees these kinds of suits hitting the market as soon as five years from now.

As for when these suit will actually cut free and march into a warzone, well, nobody's sure. If things stay on track, though, Smith says that soldiers--and potentially civilians--could be traipsing around inside a personal exoskeleton by 2020--somewhere around the time when Iron Man VII should be hitting theaters.

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John Herrman

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor John Herrman is a freelance writer based in New York City. He is also contributing editor at Gizmodo. He holds a degree from the University of Edinburgh. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure