Monday, November 26, 2012

How to Build A Power Suit and/or Powered Armor, Part 1: The Basics

Hi guys!  Soooo I know I said in the Samus Aran skills post that powered armor for private individuals is a bit far-fetched.  But I know I've toyed around with the idea before, and you probably, have, too.  So let's start taking a look at how we might go about such a thing.  Keep in mind, this is all theoretical stuff, I'm not necessarily advocating you go out and spend tons of money on this!  That said, most of us here are bright, young minds, so I'm not necessarily poo-pooing our chances, either!  We'll probably be covering the different aspects of powersuits and powered armor for most of the week!

For starters, let's take a look at what most powered armor and powersuits feature across games, movies, and comic books:
  • Enhanced Protection from Harm
  • Enhanced Physical Capabilities
  • Enhanced Sensory Capabilities 
  • Enhanced Transportation/Mobility
  • Futuristic On-Board Weaponry or Weapon Interfaces
  • On-Board Computer(often voice activated)
Okay, so, now we know what we're looking for, let's look at some real-world attempts, first.

The Trojan, by Troy Hurtubise
Troy Hurtubise is pretty well-known for constructing his series of bear-proof suits after an encounter with a grizzly bear.  After building quite a few of these, he parley'd his knowledge into construction a suit of armor for military use.  The result, the Trojan, honestly looks like it's from a video game.  It's bullet-resistant, full-body protection, the helmet has solar-powered cooling fans, and it has bear mace mounter in one of the gauntlets.  It doesn't amplify physical characteristics, but it's still pretty nifty.

HAL, by Tsukuba University and Cyberdyne(yes, they got their name from the movies)
Woohoo Japan!  We knew you guys would come through!  HAL is a series of partial(HAL 3) or full(HAL 5) exoskeletons for public use!  Designed with disabled and elderly people in mind, HAL 5 is capable of amplifying a user's strength by up to five times!  It's already in use in hospitals across Japan, and can be rented for the low, low price of $2000 a month!  That said, amplifying strength is the only characteristic it fulfills, with no protection options, and I'm not able to find much about it working in athletic activities, like running and jumping.  It would be interesting to see how it performs, though.

XOS 2 by Raytheon
The XOS 2 is a bit bulkier than HAL, and at the moment must be tethered to a power source, however, unlike HAL, it's being developed more for military purposes.  It moves very fluidly, and greatly amplifies the wearer's strength.  No armor or weapons systems on this one, either, but with the larged size and heavy duty construction, it's a bit easier to imagine.  What if you combined this suit with the Trojan?  Could be interesting...

HULC by Lockheed Martin
The main competitor to the XOS, the HULC is smaller, untethered, and also militarily-aimed.  It is, however, lower-body only, and, again, doesn't feature any armor.  Their main goal is amplifying carrying capacity and endurance for soldiers in the field.

ReWalk by Argo
Meant for medical use, the ReWalk is engineered with the idea of helping people who have severe walking impairments or paralyzation.  Typically paired with a set of crutches, it provides full lower body support.  While noble, and awesome, this probably least fits our goal qualifications for a powered combat suit. That said. it's another case study to consider.

So now we've taken a look at the contenders, let's theoretically build a franken-suit.  Take the sleek design and portability of the HAL 5, add in the fluidity and combat-readiness of the XOS 2 and HULC, and slap on the full-body armor capabilities of the Trojan.  Now we're getting somewhere!  Full-body bullet and blast resistance, augmented strength and endurance, and personal air conditioning!  Unfortunately, this suit would be extremely expensive to build, and require a lot of expertise.  Let's take a look at the hurdles to overcome.

Exoskeletons are, basically, robots being driven by your brain and/or nervous system.  You need an on-board computer with at least some rudimentary AI to decipher whatever method you're using to communicate with the suit.  The HAL 5, probably the most user-friendly of these suits, reads electrical impulses from sensors on your muscles, interprets them, and tells which motors to fire and how.  This is not easy, though, and if you look up some videos of the early HAL prototypes you can see there was a lot of trial and error involved.  You might want to look into Arduino boards, with possible hookup to a laptop with more detailed programming.  If you don't know any programming or electrical engineering, Arduino boards are a great place to start, and there's a huge community for it.

Exoskeletons need to be lightweight yet sturdy.  Typically titanium and other modern alloys are used in production, but these can be expensive and difficult to work with.  For prototyping, you could probably go with some cheaper components like steel.  These would be heavier, and possibly not as strong, but you could pick up a lot of the materials from your local junkyard, and they are relatively easy to machine.(I personally love to do home metal working with my Dremel).  For armor, there's always BulletProofMe, however Troy Hurtubise came up with his own armor compounds, so you might want to look into that sort of thing.

I'm going to assume we're operating on a home hobbyist's budget, here, so cost is going to be an issue.  You can cut some corners, using things like junkyards, salvaged parts, and craigslist, but you're still going to need to spend some coin.  You're either going to have to look at a second job, rebudgeting yourself on your own job, or finding investors.  This is not something to be underestimated, Troy bankrupted himself because of his projects, you don't want to end up in that situation if you can avoid it.

There's other hurdles as well, things like power sources and methods of augmentation, but we'll confront those issue-by-issue as we go through, today is just the overview write-up.  I love talking about stuff like this so I look forward to the coming week, and I encourage you to post any questions or comments here, or on the Facebook page.

Tomorrow we'll be covering physical augmentation methods, both known and experimental. Until then, make sure to follow me on Twitter,  like the blog page on Facebook, and continue to be awesome.

Dan "DaRatmastah" Wallace

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