Lockheed Martin [LMT] has been selected to provide its artificial intelligence-enhanced exoskeleton for Army testing, as the service looks for a next-generation capability to lift the burden from soldiers of carrying heavy cargo over longer distances.
Army Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center (NSRDEC) awarded Lockheed a $6.9 million Other Transaction Authority in September to demonstrate its Onyx exoskeleton with soldiers over the next two years, the company announced Thursday.
The contract announcement arrived on the same day the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) released a report recommending the Army develop a lower-body exoskeleton acquisition program within five years and a full-body exosuit program in 10 years, in order to improve future soldier survivability.
“It’s not a development contract. It’s really an advancement contract, so we don’t own the rights. We’re not developing it. Literally what we’re doing, by direction of the chief of staff, is we’re looking high [technology readiness level] capabilities and handing to them soldiers,” David Audet, NSRDEC branch chief for mission equipment and systems, told Defense Daily. “We’re letting soldiers dictate how they’re going to use them, the tasks they’re going to perform with them, and determining whether or not they’re valuable on the battlefield.”
Keith Maxwell, Lockheed’s senior product manager for exoskeleton technologies, demonstrated Onyx at a CNAS event Thursday.
“The idea is that we’re going to take the capabilities of some of the fittest, highest performing individuals in the world and we’re going to extend those capabilities,” Maxwell said. “We’re going to make them stronger. We’re going to make them last longer. And we’re going to make them go faster and farther.”
Maxwell said Onyx weighs 19.5-pounds and works by utilizing electro-mechanical knee actuators, sensors and AI technology to assist soldiers with lifting heavy loads and removing the strain of climbing steep inclines.
“I don’t feel the weight of the system, but mostly because it’s pushing me along,” Maxwell said.
Soldiers at Fort A.P. Hill in Virginia have already used the system where, according to Maxwell, soldiers could do 72 repetitions lifting 185-pounds after a full days navigating rough terrain and expending full energy.
NSRDEC will run two culminating events in the summer and fall of 2019 to test Onyx with a larger number of units.
“At the end of the evaluation period, we’re going to go build a number of these systems. The Army is going to go test them in a combat realistic environment. And at that time, this system will be hardened for that purpose,” Maxwell said.
An exoskeleton acquisition strategy is likely to come together in September 2019, according to Audet, as NSRDEC transitions the effort to Program Executive Office – Soldier. Audet called the five to 10 year plan recommended in CNAS’ report “very doable.”
“In the long term, development of an operationally viable exoskeleton has the potential to radically transform infantry soldier survivability in unprecedented ways,” CNAS wrote in the report. “Exoskeletons have significant hurdles to overcome, especially power, but these obstacles could be overcome with focused military investment.”
The CNAS report was funded by the Army Research Laboratory.
Lockheed Martin developed Onyx through a license with Canadian bio-robotics technology company B-TEMIA.