Army exoskeletons train soldiers to shoot

The film 'Aliens' provided the inspiration for a US Army research lab to use robotic arms in target practice.

screen-shot-2015-07-06-at-09-28-15.png
US Army

The US Army is looking to robots to make its soldiers expert marksman.

The US Army Research Laboratory (ARL) revealed last week that the unit is exploring robotic exoskeletons and their applications in training human soldiers. Human trainers and simulations can only go so far, but it is hoped that a physical tool able to not only boost skill levels but reduce the amount of time and ammunition used in training soldiers for the field.

Perhaps the MAXFAS mechatronic arm exoskeleton will one day make this a reality. Developed by mechanical engineer Dan Baechle -- who is fascinated by the 1986 film Aliens -- the exoskeleton is being constructed to act as a training device to help "new recruits with novice marksmanship skills and generally help increase combat arms shooting performance on the battlefield," according to the engineer.

"Soldiers need to be able to aim and shoot accurately and quickly in the chaos of the battlefield," Baechle said. "Training with MAXFAS could improve soldiers' accuracy, and reduce current time and ammunition requirements in basic training."

Specifically, the engineer wants to address the problem of hand tremors and shakes which can occur when lining up a target or due to tiredness. Initial experiments have shown recruits who wear MAXFAS when shooting enjoy a reduced shake rate -- which can skewer a shot -- even after removing the device.

The MAXFAS design took inspiration from a robotic device used to help stroke victims better control their arm movements, located at the University of Delaware.

screen-shot-2015-07-06-at-09-49-08.png
US Army

However, with the field in mind, MAXFAS is made of carbon fiber to reduce overall weight. Motors are placed behind the wearer, which pull cables -- attached to puppet-like arm braces -- to steady the user's arm and overall aim.

Sensors on the braces feel tremors and send signals to the motors to correct it without restricting motion.

"The soldier is already wearing a lot of weight on missions. I figure with a carbon fiber exoskeleton, I could add a big performance benefit without much additional weight," Baechle said.

The project, which began last year, is now ready for experts in both materials and human sciences to join up and refine MAXFAS.

Baechle commented:

"My vision is that one day, a more mature version of MAXFAS could be used to improve aim on the battlefield despite any adverse conditions [...] In science, we are making great progress toward making science fiction a reality."

Read on: Top picks