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Coming up the gangway: Sailors in exoskeletons

Aug. 31, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  
The National Center for Manufacturing Sciences has purchased two of Lockheed Martin's FORTIS exoskeletons for testing and evaluation in the Navy.
The National Center for Manufacturing Sciences has purchased two of Lockheed Martin's FORTIS exoskeletons for testing and evaluation in the Navy. (Courtesy of Lockheed Martin)
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Anyone who saw Ripley defeat the alien queen in the 1986 film “Aliens” knows how badass exoskeleton technology can be.

But the science fiction of the ’80s is becoming a reality, and it could soon make your job easier.

Lockheed Martin announced Aug. 18 it has sold two FORTIS exoskeletons to the National Center for Manufacturing Sciences for testing and evaluation by the Navy.

The FORTIS isn’t powered and wouldn’t be effective against giant extraterrestrials. The FORTIS is designed instead to aid ship builders, and ultimately sailors, operating heavy tools, distributing the weight through the suit and onto the ground.

Lockheed’s exoskeleton is designed to hold the tool for the operator, allowing the person in the suit to focus on movement.

“It’s for holding heavy tools, grinders, painters and welding,” said Adam Miller, director of new initiatives at Lockheed Martin Missiles and Fire Control. “If you take a tool that’s 30 pounds ... [perhaps] a guy could hold that tool for three minutes, then have to take a 10- to 15-minute break. But if the FORTIS is holding that, you can go maybe five to eight minutes. Then you shake your arms and keep on going.”

The suit allows sailors and yard workers to do better work, and is likely to open up heavy industrial work to more people.

“It allows the craftsmen to focus on what they are doing, not just on holding a tool,” Miller said. “But it also allows folks who may not be able to hold a tool that heavy away from the body, to do that work.”

Like any technology, FORTIS will change and evolve based on feedback, he said. But, ultimately, having the technology out there will drive innovation as the Navy thinks of more uses for exoskeleton technology.

Bionic sailors

The Navy isn’t the only service looking at exoskeleton technology. For the past few years, the Army has been working with Lockheed to develop the HULC, another wearable exoskeleton that is designed to help soldiers carry heavy packs in challenging terrain while conserving energy.

HULC is computerized, using sensors to adjust to the user’s body movements, allowing freedom of movement should the soldier need to run or jump.

But it gets better. U.S. Special Operations Command is developing a suit that will make its wearer look like “Master Chief” from the Xbox game “Halo.”

SOCOM last year signaled its desire to develop a Tactical Assault Light Operator Suit, designed to protect operators from ballistics and fire. The idea is to integrate exoskeleton technology and advanced electronics to give operators super-human strength and endurance, while making them essentially bullet-proof.

At a 2013 industry event,SOCOM head Adm. Bill McRaven said he was committed to fielding the suit.

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