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Japan Wants Exo Suits For Its Soldiers

December 29, 2014

Edge of Tomorrow screen shot

As 2014 drew to a close, Japan’s Ministry of Defense (MOD) published its budget request for next year on its website.

The detailed 60-page document is an accessible list of critical and sundry investments for Japan’s Self Defense Forces (SDF). Much of it is connected with deterring Chinese encroachment on Japan’s territorial waters.

There are also abundant R&D programs for future weapons.

And then, on page 35, sandwiched between funding for surface-to-air missiles and pouring even more funding to universities for dual-use technology, is a very peculiar requirement.

It reads:

Research on highly mobile powered suits (¥0.9 billion)

Implement research on highly mobile powered suits which enables SDF personnel wearing/carrying personal equipment to take quick and agile actions

A small illustration beneath the text portrays a squad of marines landing on a beach and a rescuer carrying a civilian in a ruined post-natural disaster city.

This $7.4 million initiative is among six special projects related to the SDF’s need for a serious offensive capability, one it doesn’t possess. So money is now being earmarked for these special projects that, according to the budget request, “Promote technological research and development.”

Industry Responds

Although powered mobile suits, also known as exoskeletons, are available commercially, these are expensive and often prototypes. In public life, the limited selection of exoskeletons are meant for people with mobility issues.

But leading corporations have embraced exoskeletons, or wearable robots, to assist laborers in the manufacturing sector and other industrial settings. Lockheed Martin has FORTIS, while South Korea’s Daewoo developed its own exoskeleton for its shipyard workers.

Japan is predictably a leader in wearable robotics, with companies like Panasonic and Cyberdine having showcased separate models. Exoskeletons are often pet projects of major Japanese universities, making these breakthroughs easily accessible for the MOD.

The idea of an exoskeleton also resonates with the general public. Long a trope of science fiction novels, comics, video games, and movies, an exoskeleton symbolizes the ultimate tool for overcoming a human’s physical limits.

A Global Trend

In recent years, however, some corporations have begun publicizing their own efforts to develop exoskeletons for military use.

Hyundai Rotem, the subsidiary of South Korean vehicle manufacturer Hyundai, is developing what it calls “Wearable robots for Military.”

Earlier in 2014, the US’ own SOCOM started soliciting input from manufacturers for its TALOS program. It’s an armored suit that give commandos additional strength and endurance during operations.

Meanwhile, Russia’s Ministry of Defense (MoD) is allegedly cultivating a cyborg soldier project of its own. In Europe, France’s industrial complex is keen on exoskeletons too.

The Hercule exoskeleton by RB3D is marketed as a dual-use system for performing multiple tasks involving loads.

But so far, none of these systems are used by soldiers in real missions. Lockheed Martin’s own HULC, a 53-pound lower body suit for hauling extra gear during cross-country patrols, never found its intended customer. (The US Army.)

It deserves mention that the Japanese SDF’s aspiration for  “highly mobile powered suits” is part of the budget request and not yet an item in the official budget, which is released during a later date.

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