Opinions & Editorials

Following the U.S. Military Exoskeleton Trends – is it going anywhere?

Left to right: HULC, ExoBuddy, XOS 2, Warrior Web Concept, ONYX, Bottom Row: Power Walk, Warrior Web, WYSS Exosuit
Left to right: HULC, ExoBuddy, XOS 2, Warrior Web Concept, ONYX, Bottom Row: Power Walk, Warrior Web, WYSS Exosuit

Where are they today?

In a letter signed by the Army Chief of Staff and Secretary of the Army on October 3, 2017, the Army stated that their Soldier lethality priorities include: “…lethality that spans air fundamentals – shooting, moving, communicating, protecting and sustaining. We will field not only next-generation individual and squad weapons… but also improved body armor, sensors, radios, and loadbearing exoskeletons…” Music to the industries ears – until the money didn’t seem to show up. Given the general policy, the Army did not state was how much or how they would invest (time and funding) in exoskeletons. With the evolution of the new Army Futures Command (AFC) and its “Cross-Functional Teams” (CFT’s), it seems the preliminary focus is on mobility enhancing systems with sustainment operation systems somewhere in the queue.

More recently, (February 15 to be precise), Special Operations Command (SOCOM) announced that “SOCOM’s Iron Man Suit is Officially Dead” (https://taskandpurpose.com/talos-iron-man-suit-dead) disclosing their activities to terminate the program known as TALOS. SOCOM announced that much was learned about the state of technology and its limitations:  “…The full-body exoskeleton prototype to offload payload weight is currently not mature enough for SOF needs… “However, the knowledge gained informs the Services’ interest in exoskeleton technology for mobility and logistic applications.” Among others, the article states that: “It’s not the Iron Man. I’ll be the first person to tell you that,” statement made by James Smith during an NDIA/SO/LIC forum in February 2019 and reported in Defense One (https://www.defenseone.com/technology/2019/02/us-military-chopping-its-iron-man-suit-parts/154706/), followed: “…was not ready for prime time in a close-combat environment”. (Thank GOODNESS someone FINALLY dispelled the “Iron-Man baloney the media hypes on so much!).

With TALOS as one of the highest visibility programs involving exoskeletons terminating its efforts as we have known to date, and the plethora of open source videos from countries like Russia (talking about a successful SUSTAINMENT type of system, not Iron-man –https://nypost.com/2018/08/28/russia-tests-iron-man-exoskeleton-armor/), China (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EfOlgWA2BIQand Ghana (https://www.rt.com/news/448398-ghana-armored-car-military/– where does that leave the U.S. in terms of progressing “an” exoskeleton agenda, and for what purpose (s)? In previous commentaries, we have followed the Army trends gathered from social media and highlighted in the 2018 Center for New American Security series “Super Soldiers”. Some of the common threads seem to indicate that the Army: 1) Seems to be interested in starting with high technology ready systems (TRL) focused on maneuver and mobility, 2) has not disclosed a budget specifically allocated to exoskeletons, but have announced their exoskeleton-focused “Other Transaction Agreements” (“OTA” not to be confused with traditional contracting activities) 3) has not set specific claims to the type of program it would be willing to fund (components, full systems, traditional R&D, or for how long 4) There has not been a release that specifies types of products or funding numbers for procuring and fielding systems. So, does this mean the Army is not interested in exoskeletons? Are they or are they not? Where are they heading? Where is the U.S. when it seems other countries and Asia are moving towards implementing exoskeletons for military, industrial and medical uses, and successfully proving their safety and efficacy?

What social media says:

Given open sources, we can glean that the Army is not willing (currently) to invest in further developing any vendors technology or concept. Army representatives have clearly stated in more than one release,  that they are taking high “Technology Readiness Level” (TRL) systems out of the box and introducing the capabilities to a specific set of Soldiers and combat support units. The first units identified are the 10th Mountain Division out of Ft. Drum, NY (https://www.army.mil/article/214540/exoskeleton_event_brings_teams_together_to_advance_exoskeleton_technology). The Army has clearly stated that they will not promote any given technology nor invest in any technology without full acceptance and validation by users. They have also announced that any future procurements or potential product development are highly dependent upon user field exercises and a VIP demonstration, scheduled for the 4QFY19. Based on the Soldier Lethality priorities, the Army is focused on systems that are designed for mobility, but they have not announced any intentions of using exoskeletons in combat environments. As for the Airforce project, a sustainment effort advertised and awarded to SARCOS in August 2018 (https://www.sarcos.com/press-releases/sarcos-robotics-awarded-second-exoskeleton-development-contract-for-united-states-air-force-logistics-applications/), has yet to release any follow-up information regarding the status and progress of their efforts, but we know the program is still on-going.

What gives?

In early February 2019, Dr. Melissa Flagg (Director Army Research Laboratory – Northeast) addressed the Boston Chapter of NDIA “Women in Defense” and in general technology development topics (not exo-specific) discouraged the audience from the traditional notion that DoD is THE bill payer for ANY capability unless truly earth-shattering. She discouraged vendors from thinking that the Army is the “cash cow” for any of the many “brilliant ideas” that oftentimes start as an “unbound solution to an understudied problem”. She further encouraged vendors to think about THEIR responsibility to produce products that the Army wants to buy. The Army can seed great concepts, but unless it is a truly game-changing product, it’s the responsibility of the vendors to design, develop and invest in products that the Army wants to buy. Not something industry likes to hear, particularly when it comes to clothing and individual equipment products.

This is the valley of grey where exoskeletons fall. DoD’s message has been unclear. With TALOS dominating the landscape, a program of over 45M worth of investment spread out to a number of products, not just exo’s folding, it leaves many questions unanswered. DoD as a community has not given up on exoskeletons but continues to push the industry to “show me”. Attempts to achieve full system integration have not yielded the anticipated results – yet. “Iron Man” was a comic concept that hasn’t yieled anticipated results. Where do we go from here? And what about the Army’s message? For starters, the Army’s message has consistent – don’t tell them how GREAT your product is or can be. Their position seems to be that if the users don’t see the value, they will not pursue it any further. The Army will not invest in actuation, power or further design improvements without a rigorous and iterative user validation process. Army representatives have been clear in informing industry that it is industries job to design the products the Army wants to use, develop them and then let the users decide with brokerage from user representatives and not aggressive rogue companies. Risky? Sure, no one wants to hear that the “traditional” acquisition models are no longer working, at least not for a product that is considered “Personal Protective Equipment” (PPE). They are not interested in shelling out 75M worth of taxpayers money and years of advancement and development on any exoskeleton concept (no matter how many congress members are launched at Defense Appropriations). Foreign or domestic. And certainly NOT foreign products without a strong US representation. No vendor wants to hear that the Army is not willing to plunk millions into high potential but unproven in military setting capabilities without Soldiers embracing the product as something that adds value or that they want or need. The vendors do not want the burden of proof. They do not want to be subjected to 3rd party independent analysis. With time and budget constraints, the Army’s mantra seems to be  “show me what you have, show me your progress, your competitive edge, your financials, your risk management plans and what you will do for me, and then let’s talk”. We do know (because the Army has said so) that IF a product demonstrates successfully, they will work to transition technologies to PEO Soldier to find it’s way into the hands of Soldiers where needed. The “where needed” is still in undetermined, but it’s moving because the Robotic Autonomous System (RAS) has been working on ALL Army focused robotic platform requirements and continues to work on “an” exoskeleton supplement to the overarching document. The good news is, its not dead. The problem is industry strategy (or lack thereof) and the efficiency or inefficiency in understanding the new order of S&T planning and funding. It certainly is a new game with traditional undertones, but a new game.

Gen Milley’s 2017 letter is policy. The Army is interested. What they are not telling you is in “what”, “how” and how much you can make “if” successful. There are offering no guarantees. So, do you and should you take a risk?

The Forecasted Horizon

The Army recognizes the cost of injury, downtime, rehabilitation, reestablishment to duty post-injury, cost of a diminishing fighting force without force multipliers resulting from muscular-skeletal injuries. Which is encouraging because those of us in the industry know that exoskeletons offer high potential. But we, as a community, need to do a better job of educating and energizing the general public and potential consumers. Investing in education – a well-rounded education campaign (ReWalk is the best-in-class example I can think of. They don’t do “ghetto” pushing – they are elegant, consistent and willing to partner and take risks. And it is paying off!), not just social media outlets. Optimizing our own technologies and avoiding the “my baby isn’t ugly” syndrome. And working as a community. The greatest takeaway from Dr. Flagg’s WID presentation was her discouraging vendors from “bad mouthing the competition” – because: “Guess what? An hour after you left my office, your competitor came in to see me and said the same thing about YOU” she said. In terms of the exo community, partnerships, education, and support will be the keys to success. Not just great technology. If one exo succeeds in this race, it opens the door for others. But we need to let the process unfold. Unfortunately, if you are looking for a 15M, 20M or 75M Defense bill payer… you are setting yourself up for disappointment. It doesn’t seem the Military is willing to part with that type of money any time soon for exoskeletons. But if you are looking to sell product and make “an” initial profit, and gamble on an expanding market… you may reap rewards – but you need to change your business model, strategy and attitude. Bad mouthing the competition and lawsuits won’t get us far as a community. We don’t know where this is all heading. We do know it hasn’t stopped until the “overweight person sings” – there is a market. You just haven’t figured out how to successfully work it. Someone will crack the door open. It could be you.

CEO New Stone SoupRita (Rita Gonzalez) Vazquez-Torres is a Senior Technology and Programs Strategist with 20+ years of entrepreneurial government Science and Technology Policy and leadership experience and CEO for NewStoneSoup VT LLC. Rita has served as Senior Industrial Security/Special Security for Special Programs; Business Development/Strategic Outreach Liaison and team leader.  more…

DISCLAIMER: New Stone Soup VT LLC (NSS VT LLC) does not represent any particular vendor or technology developer. NSS VT LLC does not speak on behalf of, represent or commit the government. The views expressed in this commentary represent the views of the author. NSS VT LLC does not take institutional positions.

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