The late Robert A. Heinlein's vision of powered armor is rapidly approaching reality. A company in Utah has an operational powered exoskeleton and a contract with the US military to develop it even further.
Rex Jameson, one of his test engineers, has been trying out Jacobsen's 150lb XOS exoskeleton, a mechanised suit that shadows his every motion to give him the kind of strength and endurance usually reserved for Marvel comics.
The real life version does not have a flame thrower, like the one in Iron Man. But, thanks to its mechanical muscles, it is strong and moves seamlessly to mirror Jameson's every motion.
To show off his superhuman endurance, Jameson can lift a bar loaded with 200lb for hundreds of times. "As far as software engineering goes, this job is about as good as it gets," he says.
"We get to write programs and we see them working on actual robots, that's very exciting. I've had a lot of software jobs before this. This one is definitely the most fun."
Jameson works at Sarcos, a robotics company that was recently purchased by the defence giant Raytheon. Although the military is most interested in using this mechanical shadow to boost the strength and endurance of soldiers, others are too, from firemen to the wheelchair-bound.
The basic idea is simple. As Jameson moves his hand a sensor in exoskeleton's handle detects a force and the computer – on the back of his suit – calculates how to move the exoskeleton to minimise the strain on his hand as a series of valves controls the flow of high-pressure hydraulic fluid that act like tendons to drive the joints.
What is crucial is that, given a few points of contact – the feet and hands, in this case – the smart machine is able to interpret the intended movements of the person strapped into it and react accordingly, turning a nifty piece of robotics into a superhero suit. It has taken three prototypes to get the blend of speed, power and sensitivity just right.
They have a video of the exoskeleton at the link. It's fascinating and eerily like what Heinlein predicted back when he wrote Starship Troopers almost a half century ago now.