POWER. At the core of both Tony Stark and his Iron Man suit is the electromagnet embedded in his chest to keep shrapnel from finding its way to his heart and killing him. While in captivity he develops an arc reactor, which is essentially a highly miniaturized fusion reactor. The reactor powers the electromagnet keeping him alive, and has plenty of energy left over to power the first suit his Mark I suit. The original reactor he builds starts to poison him with palladium, so he develops a new element which he calls vibranium. As analyzed by Sidney Perkowitz of Emory University, the reactor should generate anywhere between 1 and 16 million horsepower.
MATERIALS. The Iron Man suit goes through multiple different materials and configurations throughout its evolving iterations. The Mark II armor, the first Stark makes after returning from captivity, was made of stainless steel and presented problems of weight and icing at altitude. From the Mark III onwards, the suits are made of a gold-titanium alloy, which not only solves the freezing issue but also proves to be extremely durable. In one session it withstands small arms fire, an explosion from a nearby tank shell, a fall of several thousand feet, 20mm Vulcan shells, and an airborne collision with an F-22 – all with relatively minor damage.
What’s truly interesting about the suits from the Mark III onwards is their actual construction. What the movies don’t show, aside from hinting at it with the collapsible Mark V suit, is that it’s composed of cells – 2 million of them. The suit’s structural integrity comes not from the surface tension of plate metal but rather from the force field that permeates the suit’s cells. The advantages of a cell-based system are substantial; not only can the Mark V and VI suits collapse to the size of a briefcase, but they can sustain considerable damage and still be functional because each cell contributes both energy and computing power to the overall suit.
The complexity of this system requires that the production process be automated, something the movies show well. What the movies once again don’t show is how Stark achieves the extremely precise circuitry necessary to create a collapsible, 2-million-cell weapon of mass destruction. The answer is biotechnology. As it turns out, each cell is created by utilizing specialized bacteria that consume specific amounts of particular metals, arrange themselves on pre-tagged areas on a substrate, and die – leaving a precisely located quantity of iron,
gold, or gallium-arsenide.
There is no official figure as to how much the Mark I suit weighs but it’s safe to assume that it could be in the neighborhood of half a ton. No figure exists for any of the later suits either, but we know that by Mark V the suit is light enough to be carried as a bulky briefcase – so it’s at most 25-30 lbs.
INFORMATION TECHNOLOGY. All suits after the Mark II have a Heads-Up Display and direct link to JARVIS, an AI situated in Stark’s lab. In general, the suit’s wearer controls movement and basic actions simply by moving his body, but more advanced tasks can be achieved by verbally directing JARVIS to perform them; these include deploying anti-missile flares, releasing emergency wing flaps, and redirecting the suit’s full power to its chest to fire a significantly stronger unibeam.
WEAPONRY AND FLIGHT. The Iron Man suit flies by means of heavy repulsor jets situated in the soles of the boots and smaller repulsors in the palms for steering or extra speed. It remains unclear exactly what Stark’s repulsors technology is, but it was initially designed to propel his company’s Jericho missile. It seems to have the properties of both jet fuel and a high-power laser beam. At this point flight is the suit’s most unrealistic function, especially if you consider that it somehow protects its user from the heavy toll of extreme G-forces.
The evolving suits are armed with a variety of different weapons systems, most of which already exist in some form. Among these are flamethrowers, anti-tank missiles, HUD-guided anti-personnel projectiles, and high-power lasers capable of slicing through about a foot of steel. It should be noted that the weapon Stark actually uses the most are the repulsor jets situated in his palms, which not only serve to propel him in flight but can also be fired in bursts at enemies. Obviously the suit also endows its wearer with generous motion amplification, so Iron Man also has enough physical strength to punch through a typical wall of concrete.
INTRODUCTION. The MJOLNIR powered assault armor is the suit worn by specially trained soldiers called Spartans in the Halo video game world. MJOLNIR is in some respects similar to the Iron Man suit, but in others very different. In short it can be said that the suit is much heavier, a bit more realistic, and far more expensive. Stark went ahead and built multiple versions of the Iron Man suit in his lab; a MJOLNIR suit costs about as much as a starship and is designed to outperform one.
POWER. The earliest iterations of the suit are tethered to a fusion generator, severely limiting their practicality as anything beyond armored sitting ducks. Eventually the suits received power from the generator wirelessly, but that still presented an issue insofar as there remained a strictly limited range of operation and if anything were to ever happen to the generator, the suit would be rendered absolutely useless. As with the Iron Man suit, MJOLNIR is eventually powered by two miniaturized fusion reactors whose cost is hinted at as “frightening.”
MATERIALS. The MJOLNIR suit differs dramatically from Iron Man in its construction. Rather than being composed of cells, MJOLNIR is composed of multiple layers with specialized purposes. The outer shell is a thick, multilayer titanium alloy that covers the user’s chest and limbs, is practically unaffected by small arms fire, and can withstand numerous hits from armor-piercing rounds. The outer shell lies on top of a titanium nanocomposite bodysuit that provides a full-body layer of protection against ballistic and heat-based attacks and is essentially the first line of defense wherever the thick outer plates are not present. Beneath the bodysuit lies a gel-filled layer that controls the suit’s temperature and can change density to conform to the wearer’s shape. Perhaps more importantly, the gel can be pressurized to protect the wearer from high-speed impacts and G-forces.
Underneath the gel lies a reactive metal liquid crystal layer that increases the strength, mobility, speed, and reaction time (by a factor of five) of the wearer. The next-to-last layer is home to the armor’s AI, which is woven by molecular tools into an extremely dense optical computer memory. This technology comprises about 80% of MJOLNIR’s construction cost (most of the remaining 20% goes into the fusion reactors). The final layer (aside from some padding) is a pressure seal that keeps the suit airtight underwater or in space.
The MJOLNIR suit weighs approx. half a ton, and endows its user with both the strength to lift two tons and the stamina to run at 20 MPH with minimal effort. It is equipped with an air filtration system, a 90-minute supply of oxygen, and small but powerful electromagnets on the legs, waist, and back to easily attach and hold weapons or devices. Similar magnets are also located on the soles of the boots to allow for traction on metal surfaces in zero-gravity environments.
USER INTERFACE. The most devastating aspect of MJONIR armor is its interaction with its wearer. The suit is essentially integrated into the user’s nervous system through a connection at the rear of the skull; therefore suit responsiveness is for all practical purposes instantaneous. The suit also provides its user with plenty of motion amplification. Both of these factors can certainly be considered advantages, but because of how reactive and overpowered the armor is, it in fact imposes strict limits upon who is capable of safely using the suit. It is essentially impossible for a normal human being to wear the suit without seriously injuring themselves. With the amplified responsiveness, speed, and power provided by the suit, the user would crush himself with his own movements and experience a chain reaction of muscle spasms (MA).
Only Spartans, an elite class of soldiers who have undergone a lifetime of training and a series of biological upgrades, are capable of using the suit. Among the upgrades are ceramic ossification and a mental reconfiguration that pairs the user’s brain with an AI. The AI communicates with the neural interface connected to the suit, which translates electrochemical signals in the brain into digital code to turn the user’s thoughts into the suit’s actions; it also receives input from the suit and translates it into electrochemical signals that the brain understands automatically.
INFORMATION TECHNOLOGY. The suit’s helmet houses most of its information technology, namely the Heads-Up Display and a radio uplink for communication. The HUD displays combat updates as well as real-time information gathered by the various monitoring systems within the suit. Body sensors relay information regarding biological function and health, such as heart rate, breathing, wound condition, blood flow, and neural activity. Sensors placed within the gloves automatically detect any weapon or device the user is holding and relay information such as ammunition count and weapon identification; the latter is used by the HUD to generate a weapon-specific targeting reticule.
Beard, Jim (2008) Iron Man: armor specs. Marvel.
Kakalios, James (2008) Iron Man’s suit defies physics – mostly. Wired.
All the specs for the Iron Man armors in one place? Yes sir! (2010) Comicbookmovie.com.
Lee, Stan: Original Iron Man comics (via Wikipedia.org)
Perkowitz, Sidney (2010) “The Reality of Iron Man” (video)
THE TECHNOLOGY BEHIND THE MAGIC
Unlike the movies, building a functioning suit of powered armor is not something you can do in a cave, with a box of scraps. You need to consider what you will be using the armor for, how much force it needs to stand up to, the power requirements, and a whole host of other factors. In addition, the parts required are complex and difficult to make, requiring careful calibration and tuning. The most complex and carefully calibrated of these parts are the controls.
The essential point of power armor is to have the suit do most of the work involved in moving the suit, its occupant, and whatever gear they might be carrying around the battlefield, disaster area, or warehouse floor. To do
that, they need power and controls. A suit of powered armor without a way to direct the actuators and motors is simply dead weight. Thus, controls are the most important part of the armor. There are two primary possibilities for powered armor controls. The method currently in use is to have computers and sensors that detect and anticipate the user’s movements, and move the suit accordingly. This is how Raytheon Sarcos’ XOS-2, Cyberdyne’s HAL 5, and UC Berkley/Lockheed Martin’s HULC all work. The HAL 5 has a more advanced system designed to pick up on nerve impulses and use that as the signal for movement, but that can be chalked up to the difference in purpose. The XOS-2 and HULC are both designed for military applications, and thus need more robust and less potentially problematic control mechanisms, while the HAL 5 is designed for assisting the disabled, who might not be able to move their limbs in a manner needed to operate the military designs. In the future, on the other hand, the HAL 5’s controls may be the way to go after all, or rather their descendent. Brain-computer interfaces, or BCIs, are advancing at a fairly rapid pace, and, as with powered armor, are being looked at to help those with disabilities regain full functionality. One of the more recent developments in the field is the creation of a BCI which is non-invasive, but also good at filtering out so called mental background noise. This is an important step, because in the heat of battle or a search and rescue operation there will be plenty of mental noise to filter out. While not advanced enough yet, BCIs may allow for simpler, more intuitive, less power consuming control systems.
Of course, all the fancy controls in the world don’t do any good without something powering them. This is the biggest obstacle by far to the mass production and use of powered armor; how do we power the things without adding too much weight? The answer, for now, is quite varied. Some, like the XOS, opt for an internal combustion engine, as well as a tether that negates the need for mobility, at least for now. Others use batteries, although some have expressed doubts about the lithium ion batteries currently in use, claiming they are too prone to exploding when ruptured. Another possible method is fuel cells, which are less risky, but more
expensive. Finally, a future possibility is solar cells, such as the cells recently developed that could harness both light and heat. These would be useful for placement near the individual and computers used as control mechanisms in suits like the XOS or HULC. As they can achieve 30% efficiency, an impressive amount for a solar cell, they could either be used to charge batteries attached to the suit, or fuel cells, or be used as portable charging equipment, in order to lighten up the suits themselves. Since, according to the makers of the XOS, their full body suit needs to be lightened by 60% to go untethered, and that’s without any armor or weapons, lighter is certainly better. The far future might include fission or even fusion designs, but those are not going to come into play any time soon.
Finally, the materials that go into building the suits are very important, with different materials being better for different applications. One constant need, however, is for a lightweight material, to deal with the aforementioned issue of weight. Titanium might make for a good material for military use, but it’s still fairly heavy. For civilian use, plastics will suffice for the most part, as evidenced by the HAL 5. The future will likely see the use of carbon nanofibers, which are already being used in race car bodies, as they are both very light, being nothing but spun carbon essentially, and very tough, in some cases tougher than kevlar. Another important piece of the materials puzzle is the actuators, which are what provide mechanical power to the limbs. Currently, most designs use either hydraulics, which use a pressurized fluid, or pneumatics, which use pressurized air. However, the future is much more exciting in this regard, since there currently exist materials known as Electroactive polymers, or EACs, which expand and contract depending on the electrical current they are subjected to. These can easily be adapted into artificial muscles for powered armor, which will not only provide the sustained power of pneumatics and hydraulics, but also bursts of power similar to what the human muscle can do.
INTO REAL LIFE: GOING FORWARD
We’ve heard of all the great ideas and proposed technology for powered armor. While some of these ideas have serious potential, most seem to be many many years away from realistic implementation. My section will serve to give a realistic idea of what we can expect as we monitor the progression of powered armor into the military.
The concept of powered armor has become progressively more appealing to the military as warfare has transformed from the traditional head to head combat to a more specialized task force operation. As Chin put it: “Recent military missions in Panama, Southwest Asia, Somalia, Haiti, and Bosnia illustrated the advantage of well-prepared, small, mobile and lethal combat forces that can rapidly respond to a broad range of conflicts
in regional conflicts.” This new style of warfare and the conflict resolution role that the US military has adopted have necessitated a more specialized soldier. The need for powered armor seems to be there and major military grants have been handed down to explore the possibility and potential of powered armor. However, “the lack of a major power to pose a legitimate threat has decreased the defense budget” (Chin). With this in mind, how far has powered armor progressed and what can we expect in the near future?
We have previously identified power, materials, and user interface as the three essential components of any powered armor set. First, materials. How close are we to a legitimate armor that can withstand basic artilery fire while maintaining ultralight shells. According to Chin, “Ultralight weapon platforms will be the cornerstone for dominating the future battlefield. Some military strategists have called for radical weight reduction in future Army platforms that requires non-existent technology.” Clearly, the military has identified light armor as vital. An interesting side note to the application of ultra light weaponry and armor is the fuel efficiency aspect. With less weight, less power is necessary to move it. Which leads to the question of powering the armor system. This aspect of the powered armor seems very far away. Battery technology has not developed much in recent years (though with new emphasis on electric cars, this may change) and batteries remain extremely heavy. Plugging these systems in is not a viable option as it decreases their functionality. It remains to be seen the type of work that hydraulic and combustion operating systems can do. This aspect of powered armor poses a major problem to the long term implementation. Finally, user interface seems to be relatively close if you are willing to accept something less than complete Iron man capabilities. Something similar to the monitoring vests that astronauts wear, or a wearable internal network of sensors is entirely possible with current computing prowess.
The most important aspect when determining the potential for powered armor is understanding the natural progression of technology. Before a given technology becomes state of the art, and truly spectacular in both application and asthetics. With this in mind, we must appreciate the steps to make powered armor. An unrealistic aspect of Iron Man involves the over night nature of the process of creating the suit. We will not see a powered armor suit in glorious fashion at first. Similar to the process of developing the laptop (From monster, room sized computers to more discrete desktop models to the Macbook on which I write this) we will see a progression of powered armor.
Assuming a natural, and linear progression to MJOLNIR or some other media representation of powered armor, what do we currently have? Where is the technology now? Such exoskeletons as the Sacros XOS cannot be confused with the Iron man suit but show serious potential. The system mirrors the wearer’s movements via sensors and weighs 150 pounds but feels like you are wearing nothing and allows the user to have lots of power with little fatigue (Been known to do 500 reps of 200 pounds on bench press). The Sacros is the only full exoskeleton the military has moved into the next development stage; Sarcos is now working under a two-year, $10-million Army grant. Other exoskeletons include Berkely’s Bionic ExoHiker which draws little energy and supports 80% of an 80 pound load on someone’s back but, because of the difficulty in walking, the user burns more energy in wearing the suit than if they carried the load alone.
Chin, E. “Army Focused Research Team on Functionally Graded Armor Composites.” Materials Science and Engineering A 259.2 (1999): 155-61. Print
Roy L. Ashok, Dharma P. Agrawal, “Next-Generation Wearable Networks,” Computer, vol. 36, no. 11, pp. 31-39, Nov. 2003, doi:10.1109/MC.2003.1244532