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By David McNally, RDECOM Public Affairs

07 May 14. Dismounted Soldiers carrying full battle gear are pushed to their physical limits. Soldiers often heft 100 pounds or more of essentials. How the Soldier of the future maintains a decisive edge may lie in innovations developed by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, better known as DARPA.

“That load is a critical issue,” said Lt. Col. Joe Hitt, who until recently was Warrior Web program manager. “In Warrior Web, we want to explore approaches which make that kind of load feel, in terms of the effort to carry it, as if its weight has been cut in half. That’s the goal.”

DARPA launched the Warrior Web program in September 2011, seeking to create a soft, lightweight undersuit to help reduce injuries and fatigue while improving mission performance.

“The number one reason for discharge from the military in recent years is musculoskeletal injury,” Hitt said. “Warrior Web is specifically being designed to address the key injuries at the ankle, knee, hip, lower back and shoulders.”

Warrior Web would protect injury-prone areas by stabilizing and reducing stresses on joints and promoting efficient and safe movement over a wide range of activities, he said.

While protecting against injury, Warrior Web also seeks to make Soldiers into better performers by giving them the feeling of a lighter load and enhancing their existing physical capabilities.

“We’re assessing new technologies that could even allow a Soldier to run a four-minute mile,” Hitt said. “For example, we have components such as motors and springs integrated into a suit which will augment the work performed by the muscles in the legs. This may be a pathway to enhancing performance.”

Such performance enhancement may sound like science fiction.

“The theory behind it is if you can provide enough force to the runner, you could probably have them do a four-minute mile,” said Michael LaFiandra, chief of the Dismounted Warrior Branch at the U.S. Army Research Laboratory. “We’re skeptical because we’re researchers and it’s part of our job to question everything. But, they’re bringing the technology here. They want to demonstrate this four-minute mile concept and we’re hopeful that they can do it.”

Wearable technologies are the newest buzz in the commercial tech world. Sensors can measure heartbeats, blood pressure and steps taken. This information is useful to an individual interested in trying to live a healthy, active lifestyle. However, the information may be critical to a small unit leader when Soldiers are networked together. A leader would be able to monitor health signs in real time to better evaluate situations and make good decisions.

DARPA, along with scientists from the Army Research Laboratory Human Research and Engineering Directorate, or ARL-HRED, tested nine prototype Warrior Web systems on Soldiers over 21 weeks during the first phase of the program.

“I think it has enormous potential,” LaFiandra said. “When you look at the amount of load Soldiers are being asked to carry and the various types of terrain they’re being asked to carry it over, they need some sort of assistance.”

The Army has looked at off-loading gear to a robotic asset or even precision airdrops as ways of reducing Soldier load.

“Those methods will be effective to some extent,” LaFiandra sad. “The reality still remains that Soldiers are going to be carrying a lot of weight. If we want them to be able to perform their mission and carry this weight, we need to do something to help them.”

The initial prototypes went through rigorous evaluation at the Soldier Performance and Equipment Advanced Research Facility at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Md. This facility features a state-of-the art bio-mechanics laboratory where researchers capture high-resolution, highly-controlled data. Immediately adjacent to lab, there is a two and a half mile cross-co

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