The USAF ‘Iron Man’ Exoskeleton Tested

  • A study showed that porters working for USAF have disability benefits that cost $31 million annually.
  • As a result, USAF tested the Forge System Exoskeleton for porters to prevent muscle injuries.
  • The Exoskeleton’s demonstration took place at the Wright-Patterson base in Ohio.

We have all seen strength-enhancing devices in sci-fi movies, but now these have become a reality. Soon we will see futuristic suits, providing humans with that extra strength, all around us.

Porters working for USAF can now prevent injuries and fatigue because of the Exoskeleton, an exosuit successfully tested in October that can help USAF employees to load heavy cargo onto aircraft without the risk of muscle injury.

The Development of the Exoskeleton

One of a USAF porters’ main duties is to manage and load passengers and cargo on and off mobility aircraft. They often handle a variety of items that can be pretty heavy that may include pallets of equipment, gear, food weighing thousands of pounds, drones, and even larger items like missile vehicles.

It goes without saying that their work is physically demanding. Consequently, their bones and muscles often pay the price.

In 2019, the Transportation Department conducted a study about porter injuries. The results showed the government spends $31 million annually on the porters’ disability benefits. Now $31 million is not exactly pocket change. The USAF had to get innovative.

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In response Roam Robotics – a California-based company – developed the Forge System. It is the latest version of a human exoskeleton.

An exoskeleton is a wearable device like a harness. Its function is to augment and enhance the capabilities of the wearer. People typically wear it over their clothing. An external source of energy, such as a battery, powers it.

Roam Robotics created the exoskeleton in collaboration with the Air Force Research Laboratory’s (AFRL) Centre for Rapid Innovation (CRI). Their device holds a set of pneumatically-powered braces and a backpack that functions to amplify leg strength.

The Testing of the Exoskeleton

On 6th October, AFRL conducted a demonstration of the Forge System at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base (AFB) in Ohio as part of an ongoing effort to evaluate the use of exoskeletons in military settings.

Two porters from the 87th Aerial Port Squadron tested the device. While wearing the exoskeleton, they loaded a 3,500-pound pallet onto a C-17 Globemaster aircraft. Usually, this task would have to be performed with the help of four or five porters. In addition they used it to push weighted sleds and climb stairs while carrying weights – something a porter has to do on a daily basis.

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One of the porters, Chief Master Sgt Sean Storms, reported feeling less pressure on his knees while moving a heavy pallet. Why? The Exoskeleton’s actuators provide a significant mechanical boost, making the task a piece of cake.

John Florio, the deputy director for the CRI, was also present during testing. He mentioned the device could allow cargo-loading porters to work more swiftly thus saving time and money.

“But the biggest game changer for the Air and Space forces is fewer injuries to personnel, which can lead to longer careers,” Florio stated. “Chronic injuries are rampant all over this particular field and in other related fields too.”

Brig. Gen. John Andrus, the commander of the 711th Human Performance Wing, suggested that the exosuit could be also be incredibly useful for paramedics during aeromedical evacuation, allowing them to easily carry injured soldiers.

Second Lt. Ian Casciola performs a squat while wearing a pneumatically-powered exoskeleton system (U.S. Air Force photo by Patrick O’Reilly)

Will we see Exoskeletons anytime soon?

In addition to the exosuit of Roam Robotics, USAF also evaluated another device called the Aerial Port Exoskeleton at Travis AFB last year. Its development was a joint effort between Arizona State University, Air Mobility Command, and the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center.

The Army have also developed some exoskeletons – hoping to assist the soldiers in lifting heavy loads, such as ammunition, and reduce the risk of injury.

Moreover,  the U.S. Special Operations Command have experimented with a suit similar to that of Iron Man. It was designed to provide special operators with increased strength and endurance.

Transforming something straight-out-of-fiction into a functional device is a challenging task. In any case, it is safe to bet that we will see some of these futuristic suits in real life very soon!