Soldiers: Your underwear of the future will do more than prevent crotch rot. It'll protect you from injuries, monitor your vitals, and even "harvest" your energy. That is, if a new project from Darpa's Defense Sciences Office works out as planned. That's an illustration, to the right, of what Darpa thinks its "Warrior Web" onesie might look like.
So far, the project is still in the draw-a-cartoon-with-a-six-pack-in-tights stage - a long way off from the "adaptive, compliant, nearly transparent, quasi-active joint support suit," which can "mitigate musculoskeletal injury caused by discrete dynamic events while maintaining soldier performance," dreamed up by Darpa. An introductory meeting of potential researchers is set for mid-October.
Musculoskeletal injuries (a blanket term for anything from pain caused by overuse to stress fractures and joint derangements) are a real problem in the military. According to a 2010 study, there were 743,547 injury-related musculoskeletal conditions amongst military personnel in 2006. In 2004, 44 percent of military fatalities resulted from unintentional injuries. These Achilles tendon strains, torn meniscuses, and sore labrums slow our soldiers down, rendering them less effective and placing them in more danger.
But protecting their knees is just the start of what Warrior Web aims to do. Darpa says it's looking for experts in the following fields for the Warrior Web:
• Joint support and musculoskeletal injury mitigation
• Dynamics of soldier action and external load
• Biomechanical and joint modeling and testing
• Efficient and compliant actuation
• Energy regeneration and harvesting
• Dynamic structural stiffness tuning
• Adaptive sensing and control for biomechatronics
• Materials, fabrics, and structures to enhance the human-to-equipment interface
Wait - "musculoskeletal injury mitigation"? "Energy regeneration"? Is this glorified pair of long underwear supposed to reduce inflammation and heal stress fractures while it pumps B-12 (or maybe amphetamines) into the blood stream? Sounds, uh, ambitious. And if I were a soldier, I'd be wary of modeling any garment that is going to "harvest" anything from me.
This isn't the military's first crazy-suit pipe dream. (In 2003, MIT bragged that they would soon show us a nanotech-made muscle suit that can heal and deflect bullets. In 2010, Lockheed Martin and Raytheon each showed off hydraulic-powered exoskeleton suits designed to help soldiers carry heavier loads while putting minimal strain on their joints and ligaments. And of course, let us never forget the super-strength cyborg penguin suit of 2008.) So Warrior Web may not be an entirely original concept, but it's certainly the most ambitious. After all, it's basically underwear with strengthening and healing powers.