Taiwan’s military has recently revealed powered exoskeleton suits that its soldiers can use in the future during wartime or humanitarian missions, to aid with tasks ranging from lifting and carrying heavy objects, to moving over rough terrain.
Research into powered exoskeletons has been ongoing for many years, due to their potential uses in different military, civilian and healthcare contexts. But what are the advantages they may be able to bring to the battlefield, and would investments in such technology be worth the investments for a country like Taiwan?
Background: Battle of the exoskeletons
An exoskeleton is an exterior structure that supports and protects the body from the outside. Its mechanisms interact directly with the body, adding strength and endurance to the user’s movements. It is also supposed to be optimized for operating during demanding tasks in extreme conditions.
Countries like China and the US have already come up with their military versions of powered exoskeletons. In fact, just earlier this year, China revealed a new powered exoskeleton capable of helping soldiers carry ammo and providing 20 kilograms of strength assistance.
Taiwan and China are currently involved in some tensions arising from Beijing’s claims that Taiwan is a breakaway Chinese province; Taiwan resists this assertion, as it is an independently governed country. The conflict between the two has escalated in recent months with the exchange of sharp comments and airspace provocations by China.
Analysis: Taiwan’s military exoskeletons
In October, during a press conference, Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense unveiled its “Army Iron Man” powered exoskeleton system, created by the National Chung-Shan Institute of Science and Technology (NCIST). The suit was designed for military use during wartime and in the event of any disaster.
The suit wraps around the shins and thighs while a few wires also extend up to a belt around the waist. Jen Kuo-kuang told the reporters at the conference that the suit reduces stress on the leg and hip joints (by supporting the knees), allowing the user to lift and carry heavier objects, over greater distances, and at higher speeds.
Powered by a lithium battery, Taiwan’s exoskeleton is currently capable of providing 40 Newton-meters of torque, allowing wearers to move at speeds of up to 3.7 miles per hour, while still weighing under 10 kilograms. A future version of the exoskeleton is expected to increase the strength of the user even more, but it will also be about 5 times heavier.
The suit will probably be used to help soldiers carry ammo, rescue other soldiers, and complete other tiring and complicated tasks. But is it really capable of making a difference during wartime?
Outlook: Is it worth it?
As a big Fallout fan, the idea of having this type of tech is pretty exciting. However, the similarities between Power Armor and real-life powered exoskeletons aren’t that many. In fact, is there even practical use for these devices when it comes to wartime?
Sure, being able to carry heavy things like weapons, ammo cases, and fallen soldiers, with ease can be very helpful, but will an exoskeleton make you run faster than an incoming missile? It won’t.
Considering the rising tensions between Taiwan and mainland China, and the fact that the latter also revealed a similar suit for military use this year, it’s possible that Taiwan wants to present itself as a force to be reckoned with, an effort that exoskeleton suits could help to achieve.
However, when comparing forces, China has superior firepower and troops. The bottom line is, a powered exoskeleton probably can’t protect you from that, and the Taiwanese government may be better off equipping their military with more traditional firepower and armaments.
Raquel is a forensic geneticist turned freelance writer. She has a knack for technology and a passion for science. You can follow her at scitechcorner.com and on Twitter @theRaquelSantos.