The High Tech Superhero

Take two ordinary guys. OK, scratch ordinary. Two extremely rich people.

One is the orphaned son of a murdered billionaire tycoon, the heir to an industrial empire and the most eligible bachelor in Gotham City. At night he dresses up like an oversized bat, and puts his life on the line to fight crime on the city streets.

The other sits at the head of the world’s most advanced weapons and robotics manufacturer, and is a billionaire playboy and genius inventor. With a heart powered by a cutting-edge reactor and a flying suit of robotic armour, he’s doing his best to privatise world peace. Neither man has any supernatural abilities, genetic mutations or extra-terrestrial super-powers. All they have is training, courage, and some of the hottest technology imaginable.

Sadly, imaginable is the operative word – Batman and Iron Man aren’t real. It’s unlikely that we’ll ever see a real-life Tony Stark facing down an army of killer drones or a real-life Bruce Wayne taking down the mob. Frankly, we’d hate to think of what a Steve Jobs (let alone a Steve Ballmer) might do with a real Iron Man suit. But is there any truth behind the tech? If you were to win the lottery, would you have any hope of fighting crime on, say, the mean streets of Swindon, or does the stuff just not exist?

Well, lets see...

Powered Armour

Bruce Wayne relies on a rack of muscle and stringent combat training to keep him safe, but where would Tony Stark be without high high-tech tin suit? Nowhere. Well, there might be no real Iron Man suit, but that doesn’t mean that work isn’t heading in the right direction.

In 2000, America’s Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) launched a program – Exoskeletons for Human Performance Augmentation – with the stated goal of developing “devices and machines that will increase the speed, strength and endurance of soldiers in combat environments.”

Amazingly, the program has resulted in at least two real-life prototypes that might one day see active service. A team at robotics specialist Sarcos – best known for creating the dinosaurs for Universal’s Jurassic Park theme park rides – built XOS, a robotic suit capable of amplifying its wearer’s strength by a factor of 10:1. If you can lift 10Kg, then the suit will lift 100Kg, and in theory do it over and over again without you getting tired quickly.

The really clever stuff happens in how the suit is controlled. Just as the Iron Man suit needs to work in concert with Tony Stark’s body, so the XOS suit needs to understand its wearer’s every movement. The XOS suit’s actuators are controlled by processors and sensors which read movement from the user’s hands and feet, translating each tiny motion into suit movement, instantly and with a surprising degree of finesse. The exoskeleton takes all but the minimum of weight and effort from its wearer, and is responsive enough to allow them to run, jump, box and even throw and catch a ball. It’s not armoured as such, but it’s certainly a kick-ass bit of kit.

The one problem? At the moment XOS only works when tethered to a power-source, and while it’s hoped that this can eventually be integrated in a case or backpack, with the suit regenerating energy while in use, it’s something that – literally – holds the exoskeleton back from active service.

Lockheed Martin’s HULC might not be a full exoskeleton, but this suit, which reinforces and works with muscles in your legs and torso, allows troops to carry up to 90Kg over all terrains and march at speeds of up to 10mph, albeit only for brief periods.

As the suit supports full mobility, its wearers can squat, crawl and lift, with the suit supporting its own weight as they do so. An over the shoulder harness allows the user to manage heavier loads, and there are plans for armed and armoured models in the future. Best of all, it’s powered by lithium ion batteries, each lasting for an hour or so, depending on usage.

HULC is currently under evaluation by the US Army’s Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Centre, and is already available for what a Lockheed Martin spokesperson calls “limited application in select groups.” Could this be the basis of a future Iron Man suit, we asked them?

“We see significant potential for this technology in the defense, industrial and medical arenas. As a load-carriage device which augments a person’s endurance and capabilities, this technology can be applied to numerous missions including logistics, infantry, explosive ordnance disposal and chemical and biological defense, to name just a few.”

We’ll take that as a yes.

Exoskeletons and powered armour

Not all the exoskeleton action is taking place in the US. In Japan, Cyberdyne, a company set up by Professor Sankai of the University of Tsukoba, is manufacturing HAL (Hybrid Assisted Limb, pictured right), a gleaming white suit developed, in Sankai’s words, to “upgrade the existing physical capabilities of the human body.” HAL multiplies the user’s strength by a factor of two to 10, with the exoskeleton supporting its own weight. The suit responds to bio-signals running beneath the human skin, interpreting signals going to the wearer’s muscles to mimic his or her movement exactly.

The HAL suit is powered by a battery lasting between three and five hours, and while the first suits on sale are targeted at the medical industry, future applications will include heavy labour and rescue support. Why not add dispensing justice to the list? Professor Sankai certainly seems confident; he’s already built a factory to produce 500 HAL units every year.

Of course, Iron Man’s suit has another function: keeping Tony Stark safe from terrorist machine-gun fire, plasma whips and missile strikes. In real life, even a nickel-titanium alloy suit might not be of much use here: even if the armour withstood every blow, it would still transfer force to the wearer – but some high-tech padding might help. For instance, a foam of carbon nano-tubes – molecular scale tubes of graphite carbon – may be resilient and strong enough to dampen the blow.

There is, however, an alternative to the whole Iron Man concept. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) is working with the US military to create a “multi-capability battlesuit” for tomorrow’s troops to wear in the field. MIT is already talking about nano-structure actuators that could give the wearer inhuman strength, and nano-fiber materials that could literally deflect bullets. The battlesuit might even be able to sense toxins in the air and filter them away from the soldier without him or her knowing about it. Frankly, it all makes an Iron Man suit seem so last year, even if the research is years away from bearing real fruit.

For Bruce Wayne, of course, things are easier. In Batman Begins, the Batsuit is based on a ‘Nomex Surivival Suit’, with a neoprene undersuit featuring the same heat-resistant materials used by real firefighters today, covered by bulletproof Kevlar panels and topped with a graphite composite cowl with Kevlar plating – all stuff that’s available right now. In The Dark Knight the suit had evolved. In the words of Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), the suit now featured “hardened Kevlar plates over titanium-dipped tri-weave fibers for flexibility” making Batman, “lighter, faster, more agile.”

All very advanced stuff, but Wayne Industries might want to invest in some more R&D if it wants to keep Batman ahead of the curve. Last year, BAE in Bristol demonstrated an armour system which utilized what’s called ’shear thickening technology.’ Here, tiny particles are suspended in a liquid where, in normal conditions, they repel each other slightly. With a sudden impact, however, the particles instantaneously clump together, creating a hard surface that can stop bullets and dissipate the energy of impact.

BAE’s scientists have referred to the liquid as “bullet-proof custard” on the basis that the two materials share basic properties (and more than that if my mum is cooking). This liquid, when used to treat Kevlar plates or garments, creates materials which bend and flow until you need them – perfect for the average stealthy super-hero. In ballistics tests with a gas gun firing ball-bearing bullets, 10 layers of treated Kevlar outperformed 31 layers of untreated Kevlar, dissipating more of the bullets energy and lessening the deformation of the plates.

An alternative approach uses what’s called a magneto-rheological fluid, where the armour is treated with an oil filled with tiny iron filings. When exposed to a magnetic field, the particles line-up, thickening the fluid and instantly turning thin clothes into solid armour at the flick of a switch. Sadly, while armour and sports equipment which use shear thickening and similar technologies are already entering the market, magneto-rheological fluid armour is still a few years away from practical use.

Finally, don’t forget those carbon nano-tubes.

Massachusetts-based Nanocomp Technologies has already demonstrated carbon nanotube armour plates capable of stopping 9mm bullets while only a few millimeters thick. Working with the US Army Natick Soldier Systems Centre, Nanocomp hopes that carbon nano-tube will be the next-generation of US army body armour. When asked for more details a company spokesman informed us that armour applications were some years away, and might not be suitable for superhero use, but we’re not fooled: a real-life Bruce Wayne is probably getting his first suit as we speak.

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