Military parachuting is one of the most physically punishing activities. Jump injuries such as sprained ankles and knees are common, reducing the number of soldiers fit for duty. That’s why the U.S. military is looking for a conformal exoskeleton – contoured to fit the body of the wearer – that parachutists can wear to reduce the likelihood of injury.
The initial goal is for a system that can reduce jump injuries by 25 percent. The Pentagon wants the exoskeleton fairly quickly, with potential small-scale production starting by 2025.
“Combat parachute jumping is a high-risk endeavor with a significant potential for injuries or death in rare cases,” notes the Department of Defense research solicitation for the EXOJUMP project.
“The risk is exacerbated by the heavy and voluminous weights warfighters carry while jumping and environmental conditions such as night-ops, wind, and terrain. Injuries require time and resources to resolve which slow the unit down and increases their risk of being attacked,” the DoD adds.
Illustrating the dangers of conventional parachutes, the T-11 parachute, for example, is designed to accommodate 400 pounds of all-up weight (AUW), with a vertical velocity of 18 feet per second and a wind-induced horizontal velocity of up to 13 knots. This already generates considerable parachute landing fall (PLF) forces – parachute landing fall is the technique used by paratroopers to reduce a landing’s impact. “Increasing the T-11 AUW to 450 pounds increases the PLF to over 21 feet per second,” the solicitation explains. “This is akin to jumping off a 9- to 12-foot truck while moving at 15 miles per hour.”
A clever exoskeleton
The U.S military has been examining exoskeletons for the past decade, most notably the Tactical Assault Light Operator Suit (TALOS) proposed by Special Operations Command (SOCOM). The project – which eventually died in 2019 – involved a powered exoskeleton reminiscent of the movie Iron Man or Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers. The suit would have provided armor protection and allowed operators to carry heavier loads.
But EXOJUMP seems more focused on minimizing parachute landing fall forces that result in injuries, and in helping scientists understand the strains that parachuting inflicts on the human body.
“EXOJUMP would form a system of body-worn sensors that collects real-time data on the biomechanics of para-jumping,” according to the research solicitation.
“The information from the sensor system (or exoskeleton system with embedded sensors) would be used in two ways: build either a passive or active exoskeleton that mitigates PLF forces; or provide unit training insight and feedback to warfighters and military units to inform proper or dangerous landing techniques. This will garner new training metrics to indicate landing risk level and highlight other problem areas of concern,” the solicitation continues.
A secondary objective of the project is “to provide load carriage and mobility support to the warfighter pre-jump by assisting them move with a full load to the aircraft and post-jump to rapidly exit the landing zone.”
The exoskeleton can’t hinder parachuting in any way and must present no hazards of snagging. For paratroopers who must hit the ground combat-ready, the suit must also be capable of being donned in minutes and removed in seconds. Other desired features include active sensors that inform the operator about jump forces, and the ability to assist operators wearing heavy loads. To accomplish this, EXOJUMP might be equipped with Artificial Intelligence that can biomechanically adjust the exoskeleton on the fly to meet changing jump conditions.
EXOJUMP against gravity
The EXOJUMP project should ultimately enable researchers to understand the stresses that parachuting inflicts on the human body.
“Output data from the system would form a method to gain a deeper understanding of the biological systems and their response to para-jumping activities, and create a system of body-worn sensors that collects real-time data on the biomechanics of para jumping,” the solicitation says.
“The EXOJUMP effort would collect the baseline data similar to a motion-capture studio but in the real world of actual and simulated jumps. Sensors would include anatomic joint angles, accelerations, forces, and/or EMG [electromyography] for muscle contraction. This will increase the stresses on the user, and allow us to address and increase the speeds or loads users need to survive.”
Under the project’s Phase I, an exoskeleton concept will be designed that can reduce parachute injuries by 25 percent. Phase II calls for an actual prototype that will be tested by the 82nd Airborne and the U.S. Air Force, with eight test models being evaluated at Yuma Proving Ground, Arizona, or Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada.
Technology can’t repeal the laws of gravity and physics, which say that objects descending from the sky – at velocities as high as 126 miles per hour – will hit the ground with some force even if slowed by a parachute. But an exoskeleton might absorb enough of the impact that the wearer can walk away, or at least avoid serious injury or death.
Michael Peck is a defense journalist and contributing writer for Forbes. His work has appeared in Defense News, Foreign Policy Magazine, National Defense Magazine, The National Interest, and other publications. He can be found on Twitter and Linkedin.
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