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Iron Man‘s Smart Armor, Coming Soon to a U.S. Army Tank Near You

Iron Man‘s Smart Armor, Coming Soon to a U.S. Army Tank Near You” width=”560″/>

While fans eagerly await the Iron Man 2 trailer (will it really play before Sherlock Holmes on Christmas Day?), engineers at Michigan’s U.S. Army Tank Automotive Research, Development and Engineering Center (TARDEC) are testing smart armor that could make the movie suit a reality. You see, part of what makes Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man awesome is the amount of information displayed in real-time on his Heads-Up Display. It’s not enough to have the XOS exoskeleton; if we’re really going to match Tony Stark’s technology and level of fantasy fulfillment, then in addition to enhancing strength and providing protection, real armor has to think. And that’s exactly what this new stuff does.

TARDEC is using piezoelectrics to make their armor intelligent: It can relay information about its condition to a remote system in real time, identify the size of bullets shot at it and generate electrical power upon impact. (No word yet as to whether Paul Bettany will be loaning his voice to the system to relay said information in that charming, JARVIS-like fashion.) “As a kid, everyone played those video games that showed you how much armor you had left as a percentage bar,” says John Wray, a TARDEC contractor. “That’s exactly what we’re working on here and more.”

If that’s not a teaser to get fans excited about seeing a real super suit, what is? Release date please! So far they’ve tested it on plates of metal inside TARDEC’s lab, but there is no reason to think it couldn’t be adapted to body armor and displayed in way that is as cool as it is in the movie. If Iron Man is flying and he’s hit, then JARVIS throws up some information for Tony’s perusal. This would work the same way, and it certainly beats getting out of your armor to visually check for damage, which is the current standard operating procedure.

As it works now, data about the armor’s integrity shows up on a monitor and is color coded so it’s easy to understand: Green means you’re good to go, black points out damage and red spots are where you’ve been hit. “If you know that one side of the armor is weakening, you could turn the vehicle to protect that side,” said Thomas Meitzler, a researcher at TARDEC.

You could. Or you could ignore the computer’s advice and take your chances. That seems to be Stark’s method (just ask JARVIS) and the comic book character always lives to fight another day — but then he has Hollywood on his side. Those fighting real battles may pay more attention to what their metal is telling them.

What makes the armor so brainy? Each plate has two piezeoelectric sensors attached to it. When an electric current flows into one sensor it turns it into mechanical energy in the form of a tiny vibration that ripples through the armor plate. The other piezoelectric device takes that mechanical vibration and turns it back into electrical energy. If the armor has been damaged some of the current released into the armor won’t be picked up on the other end, and by measuring just how much energy is lost, the TARDEC scientists can determine how damaged the armor is. Unless you’re a whiz like Tony Stark, it was probably more fun not knowing, wasn’t it?

While the sensors will convert any stress or strain (including that from moving) into voltage, don’t start rendering your personal superhero suit just yet. It won’t create enough energy to serve as a real-life “arc reactor.” To power the suit, we’re waiting on cold fusion. But, by measuring the voltage resulting from an impact, it can identify what kind of bullet the enemy is using and any excess voltage produced could be stored in a battery for later use.

The next step, according to Meitzler, is to test the smart armor out in the field. Forget testing Meitzler! You know it’s going to work. In the words of Tony Stark, “Sometimes you gotta run before you can walk.” Move on to cold fusion and bring on the real Iron Man.

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