January 14, 2015

CNAS Report Release: "Between Iron Man and Aqua Man: Exosuit Opportunities in Maritime Operations

Washington, January 12 – Center for a New American Security 20YY Warfare Initiative has released a new report, Between Iron Man and Aqua Man: Exosuit Opportunities in Maritime Operations. The report examines how exosuit technology, often considered in the context of special operations or ground forces, could be used in maritime applications in the near-term. The report’s authors are Andrew Herr, CEO of Mind Plus Matter, and Lt. Scott Cheney-Peters, a surface warfare officer in the U.S. Navy Reserve.

The full report is available here: https://bit.ly/2uQmPz5
Please find an executive summary of the report below:

“We’re building Iron Man. ... Not really. Maybe. It’s classified.”
- President Barack Obama, Feb. 25, 2014

While the President jokingly made this remark at an event touting the promise of manufacturing innovation hubs, savvy observers noted that the U.S. government is in fact developing the technology popularized by Iron Man and other books and movies: exosuits. The government has also been open about this work, going so far as to post YouTube videos showing futuristic visions of exosuit-clad warriors. Like almost all military exosuit efforts to date, these programs are intended to benefit the U.S. Army and special operations ground forces, but the potential military value of exosuits extends beyond the land environment, opportunities that analyses and programs have largely neglected to date. This paper focuses on one set of little-discussed applications — naval and maritime operations — and examines what is possible in the next five years.

The paper first provides a brief background, setting out definitions and a short history of exosuit development. It then looks at the current state of supporting technologies, demonstrating that unpowered exosuits can deliver immediate benefits and that powered exosuits that can provide major enhancements to human abilities are within reach in five years. The paper next outlines an array of maritime uses. It finds that damage control is the application with the greatest opportunity for capability enhancement and that use in deck operations and maintenance would provide major cost savings. Exosuits would also be valuable in humanitarian assistance/disaster response, construction, amphibious operations and medical care aboard small ships. Next follows an analysis of the value proposition compared with investing in robotics. It finds that exosuit-enabled humans have substantial advantages over remotely controlled robots, which are slow and do not give operators as much situational awareness, and that autonomy is not yet near the level of development required to handle the missions at which exosuits would excel.  

We conclude by recommending that the Navy and seagoing elements of the other Services increase their investment­, in time and funds, in exosuits for maritime operations. Yet while exosuits appear likely to offer benefits when compared to existing approaches, it is critical to deliver a cost-effective powered suit in a reasonable time frame. To ready exosuit technology for shipboard operational use while preventing cost and schedule creep, a Navy-led effort should:

  • Identify prioritized missions, specific required capabilities, and a corresponding concrete list of technical specifications. These will facilitate focused research and informed choices about design trade-offs, as well as enabling effective cost-benefit analysis comparisons with non-exosuit solutions.
  • Invest in the research required to optimize the design of exosuits to decrease power requirements so as to achieve two hours of energetic autonomy – the ability to operate powered, but untethered, such as on batteries. 

Together with an intensive development program, these two steps will set the stage for a day in the next five years when exosuits take up a meaningful role in maritime operations.

The report’s authors are available for interviews. To arrange an interview, please contact Neal Urwitz at nurwitz@cnas.org or call 202-457-9409.