Skeletons in the cupboard

The sun is expanding and eventually the Earth will be toast. However, scientists have come up with a cunning plan….Imagine a suit that could lift a paralyzed child out of her bed and enable her to talk down the stairs. To walk to school and sit at her desk. To hold a pen, chase a ball or ride a bike.

That technology is on order, thanks to a $50 million US government grant. The deadline for trials to start has been set at 2005.

However, these suits will not be available to disabled children or adults. Only the fittest men – and perhaps women – will be trained to use an exoskeleton that could make every muscle ten times stronger.

The money is being put up by the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and the mission statement is clear : to increase human speed, strength and endurance in combat environments.

“Expected benefits,” says the DARPA website, “include increased lethality and surviuvability through increased firepower, ballistic projection, obstacle clearance and battlespace dominance.”

The chief argument against using women as frontline troops is a practical one – few females are as the average Marine. Exoskeletons could make this argument redundant.

Unlike medieval armor, military exoskeletons are designed to be swift rather than bullet-proof. So-called because they look like a kit of bones fused onto a radiation suit, they feature a night-vision visor which can also detect deadly chemicals.

Project Leader Dr. Ephrahim Garcia promises : “This programme will lead to self-powered, controllable, wearable devices and enable direct and seamless interaction between human and machine.:

DARPA projects can benefit everyone, not just elite forces. You probably log onto the DARPAnet everyday – though you know it as the World Wide Web. But if you want to try an exoskeleton without joining the SAS, maybe you could invest in a SpringWalker from Applied Motion. It’s still at the developmental stage but there’s a hilarious video of a prototype, loping along like an ostrich chasing a monkey. The monkey is the user, his flailing legs five feet off the ground.

I fought for the Israeli army in the Six Day War and I was pretty damn scared most of the time but I’d have been much more afraid on a computer-operated pogo-stick.

John Dick, president of Applied Motion claims : “We’ll have you trotting four-minute miles without tiring, and scrambling up a mountain like an all-terrain vehicle.”

The current version runs on rechargeable batteries with a range of about a mile. The cost ? As John Dick says, “If you have to ask…”


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