The futuristic visions of a military-style Iron Man exoskeleton suit might be a thing of the past and replaced by something more simple: a light garment that is able to relieve back discomfort.
The outfit, which weighs only 3 pounds is lightweight harness that soldiers wear to their legs and shoulders. Soldiers can push the button located on the suit from their left shoulder. This triggers the straps across their back to reduce the strain of lifting heavy objects, such as boxes, artillery rounds or guns.
The name itself is a mouthful, and it is dubbed”the Soldier Assistive Bionic Exosuit Resupply or SABER. It was created in collaboration with Vanderbilt University and the U.S. Army and Vanderbilt University and will be used in the field in 2023.
SABER is a change from the bulky and automated “warrior suits” that the military has developed in the past. It instead is a light, versatile accessory that soldiers can wear when moving heavy equipment or artillery. The creators claim this method is superior, as it addresses a particular issue soldiers face, and doesn’t get out of the way.
“[The Army] initially tried to design Iron Man,” Karl Zelik as the chief designer for SABER and an associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering at Vanderbilt University, said. “They were full-body robotic systems hoping to accomplish everything, but failed because they were massive and heavy and complicated and expensive … The exosuit is the closest thing to Iron Man as you can find.”
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Back pain is commonplace in the Army and can have a major impact on the operations. Lower back injuries cause more than a million lost or reduced days for soldiers every year in the estimation of the U.S. Army Public Health Center. Around the equivalent of 460 soldiers are diagnosed with back injuries due to overuse each daily, U.S. Army data illustrates.
To address the issue problem, the military decided towards its Pathfinder project, which is designed to revolutionize Army operations through collaboration between soldiers and universities. Then, they made $1.2 million in the creation of an SABER-like prototype suit.
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So far, about 100 soldiers have tried it at 3 distinct Army bases. In May, eleven soldiers from the army’s 101st Airborne Division used the SABER exoskeleton during an exercise in Fort Knox, which required them to lift massive ammo boxes and move a gun several times per day, according to Zelik.
“Lifting 60-pound rounds, you’re exhausted,” Dale Paulson, an individual first class member of the 101st Airborne Division who tested the suit, stated in an announcement. “Wearing the suit was helpful tremendously, especially in taking the rounds off in the back of the vehicle.”
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The design of the suit is shifting away from Vanderbilt University and the Pathfinder project to a spinoff firm named HeroWear which will make the suit, Zelik said.
The next hurdle Zelik noted will be getting this product approved by the Army’s “very complex” acquisition procedure. If that happens, impacts could be substantial.
“You are surrounded by injured people,” he said. “We have the chance to prevent certain injuries.”
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