Lockheed Martin's 'Iron Man'-like leg device catches Army's eye
By MARCO SANTANA | Orlando Sentinel | Published: June 20, 2018
ORLANDO, Fla. (Tribune News Service) — It's not Tony Stark's iconic "Iron Man" suit.
But an exoskeleton-like device developed by a Lockheed Martin team based in Orlando could give soldiers, workers and perhaps even the disabled some significant new powers.
The ONYX suit uses embedded sensors to track body movement, which a computer interprets to help the wearer perform certain "knee-intensive tasks" such as climbing stairs or crossing difficult terrain.
"It's fantastic technology," said Gavin Barnes, Lockheed's lead exoskeleton engineer. "Everyone wants to be a superhero."
The company hopes to market the technology to soldiers, first responders and generally any industry that requires lower back and leg-based actions. Last month, the U.S. Army agreed to do field tests of ONYX starting in December, following a demonstration at the Pentagon.
Barnes is part of a team of about half dozen engineers in Orlando that has been developing the technology since early last year.
ONYX, which is worn on the legs, weighs about 15 pounds. Its more than a dozen sensors collect data related to human movement, including the angle at which a knee bends and the speed that a person walks.
The computer uses that information to power actuators to make walking or standing easier. It's too early to say how much the device might cost.
Lockheed would not comment on what it has invested in the program but did say that the company has spent years developing, testing and refining it as it anticipates a U.S. Army contract.
The suit is the latest in the company's ongoing attempt to create a marketable exoskeleton, an effort that until the end of 2016 featured a system known as the HULC.
HULC was essentially a suit of armor that weighed 80 pounds and included large metal bars that held it together. But after years of development, leaders had to make the tough decision to pull the plug and move on to something else.
"It was a painful process when we had to acknowledge that the technology would never progress beyond a certain point," said Keith Maxwell, the senior exoskeleton program manager. "So the question was, do we stop and take the good points out of it and start over? We challenged ourselves and said let's try something different."
That's where the path to ONYX began.
The contraption still has some kinks to work out if it is to become a widely used system for the military.
For instance, as it operates, a faint whirring sound can be heard coming from the joints.
That's probably not a big deal in a workplace, but could be dangerous if an Army unit was sneaking up toward an enemy, Maxwell said.
"What you wouldn't want to hear is 100 guys walking through the woods at night," said Maxwell, who has spent 10 years working on Lockheed's exoskeleton programs.
As he stood tall in the suit on a closed-off area of Lockheed Martin's Missiles and Fire Control complex earlier this month, Barnes' name tag hung loosely off an Iron Man lanyard.
He has been a fan of science fiction for years, which is one reason he has enjoyed working on the exoskeleton.
But he has a more personal reason to root for the technology: his sister uses a wheelchair because she suffers from spina bifida.
"If she had an exoskeleton, it would help her," he said. "She would never need a wheelchair again."
The exoskeleton industry has been growing of late, with large electronics manufacturers such as Panasonic pouring money into research and development of the technology.
That could mean the timing of Lockheed Martin's growing exoskeleton development could be ideal.
For Barnes, the project is a way to do meaningful work.
"I get to dream up and think about ways to enhance people's performance," he said. "Walking in this suit feels like walking with a really stiff wind behind you.