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Exoskeleton Suits for Army Soldiers

September 17, 2019 By Lt. General P.C. Katoch (Retd)
The Author is Former Director General of Information Systems and A Special Forces Veteran, Indian Army


If news reports are to be believed, Defence Bioengineering and Electro-medical Laboratory (DEBEL) of the DRDO has been for some time collating data for Simulation and Analysis of Musco-skeletal parts, like lower limb simulation while the soldier is standing, to provide Exoskeleton technology to Army soldiers in wearable clothing - an 'Exo-Suit'. Given the track record of DRDO, such utopia is quite amusing even though DEBEL can continue studying the issue till eternity. It may be recalled that despite all the research and development, DRDO wasn't able to provide the Army with a proper bullet proof-jacket over past seven decades plus till Dr Shantanu Bhowmik, Head Research & Projects, Department of Aerospace Engineering, Amrita University, Coimbatore forwarded a proposal to MoD for a state-of-the-art bullet resistant vest. Even then the red-tape ensured that it sees the light of the day only as a joint project with DRDO with MoD bureaucrats too benefiting concurrently. But the good news about the Exo-Suit is media indicating that private sector companies too are doing R&D for the Exo-Suit design for the Indian soldier, which will be customised according to the different environmental challenges. Going by reports, India is already incurring expenditure on upgrading wearable gear on individual soldier to meet the ever-changing combat environment challenges, but there is a limitation up to which equipment can be fitted onto a soldier's body. Besides, soldiers on the battlefield must be networked for C41 capabilities to meet 21st century battlefield environment.

Soldiers are gradually being given advanced helmets, radios, nigh vision goggles, body armour, which adds to the weight that fatigues him. Exoskeletons are gadgets worn as a harness by a soldier to augment his strength. These body gadgets are fitted with powered special devices and Artificial Intelligence (AI) to enhance the capability of a soldier. A soldier rigged with an Exo-Suit is capable of faster movements and possesses the extra load-bearing capability. Exo-Suit's limb actuator devices and sensors design is based on study and analysis of human Musco-skeletal impact, measured during the soldier's interaction with the external environment. Each of the muscle's micro-motion is measured for its correlated moment on the joints, so that a similar smooth response from the Exo-Suit can be obtained, according to an AI and C4I expert. These Exo-Suits have composite material structure with sensors and controllers interlinked in a feedback control loop via an intelligent processor. For military applications, an Exo-Suit rigged up on a soldier is expected to enhance the soldier's additional load carrying capacity by 100 kg for a minimum of eight hours of operational time and three to five hours of battery backup. Additionally, Exo-Suits are dual-use technology with high relevance in the medical field, where these are referred to as Robotic Exoskeleton. This allows paraplegics to walk again and is the rehabilitation tool for people with serious injuries, like a spinal cord injury. Such suits improve metabolic and cardiovascular functions in patients so as to overcome multiple medical issues like respiratory problems and osteoporosis, majorly caused due to non-functioning body condition. They also assist paralyzed patients with sports injuries to walk, move and provide them with the much needed emotional support for overcoming depression. Even in the military domain, these medical benefits of Exo-Suits can help soldiers with severe disabilities to live a close to normal life. Advanced countries like the US and Russia are seriously looking at Exoskeleton Technology for their soldiers. But such advanced technologies are not likely to be shared readily. With our troops actively deployed in extreme places like Siachen and cold/hot desert regions to a high humidity place like the northeast region, the environmental specifications of the Exo-Suit are especially demanding, with equipment storage temperature parameter ranging from minus 50 degree Celsius to plus 70 deg Celsius. Also, to deny enemy use of any captured Exo-Suits, high grade 'lock' pass code mechanism shall be required.

Recent reports had also indicated that the MoD has adopted a policy to raise participation of indigenous firms in manufacturing 'technical textile' for Armed Forces. Though India is the second largest textile economy in the world after China, India's contribution to the global technical textile industry is insignificant. The products under the MoD's new policy implementations include high altitude inner clothing, three-layered gloves, multi-purpose boots, snow boots, crampons and sleeping bags and other such products made of technical textile. The tenders related to the products up to the value of 50 lakh will go to an Indian company giving the lowest bid. Foreign manufacturers will be able to participate in cases where the value of tenders is worth more than 50 lakh. Significantly, British firm 'Intelligent Textiles', had developed conducive yarn in 2012 that took power and data to where required, with redundancy, so that if the fabric got cut, damaged or torn, there is still a way of re-routing the data. It removes the hindrance of the many wires and cables required in military equipment that adds weight, can tangle and snag. During the 2012 field trials, the fabric was integrated into the vest, the shirt, the helmet, the backpack, and into the glove and weapons platform. The ring-main circuit allowed powering data where required. Power could be sent to even the helmet without it being tethered. Also being developed was a 'fabric keyboard' for use with a portable computer integrated with the uniform. By September 2015, the firm had secured a multimillion-pound deal with the US and UK to bring this technology to soldiers. As in the case of 'Technical Textiles', it would be prudent for our government to focus on developing Exo-Suits speedily using indigenous private industry.