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P Is for Power Armor

Power armor, mecha suits, exoskeletons… whatever you want to call it, power armor is hot right now. A couple months ago, Jon Favreau triumphantly brought Iron Man to the screen… perhaps science fiction’s best known example of the power armor hero.

The meat inside Iron Man’s shell is Tony Stark, smarmy mili-industrial playboy and alcoholic. According to the comics, Stark didn’t think too closely about what his advanced military weapons might be used for until he was kidnapped by the Red Chinese, who ordered him to build weapons for them. Instead, he built himself a marvelously ante-diluvian suit of power armor to kick their skeletons out of their bodies, then used his armor to defend the world… often times from the very weapons his company designed.

In many ways, Iron Man is the power armor prototype. The armor gives its wearers fantastic strength, lightning-fast reflexes, the ability to fly and a sophisticated on-board computer to dynamically analyze data in combat. Iron Man can hardly be given credit for popularizing the power armor concept, though. Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers is the slim classic of the power armor scifi sub-genre. Forget what you think you know about Starship Troopers based on Paul Verhoeven’s loose 1997 adaptation of the novel: in Heinlein’s novel, Sgt. Johnnie Rico and his comrades fight extraterrestrial arachnoids with futuristic, military-grade power armor, making each soldier a combination of an infantry unit and an armored tank. First released in 1959, Starship Troopers beats Iron Man to the power armor punch by almost four years.

But video games are where power armor in science fiction is really at. Since id software’s 1993 release of Doom, there’s scarcely been a first person shooter
that hasn’t slapped the player in some form of power armor. The reason
is simple: Power armor gives an in-universe explanation for the
player’s on-screen health, ammunition and map displays, as well as a
player’s surprising invulnerability. Consider Bungie’s Halo
series of games, in which you play an emerald, enigmatic cyborg known
only as the “Master Chief,” who single-handedly wages war against a
nearly infinite extraterrestrial threat known as the Covenant. As a
player, your point-of-view even looks like the inside of a power armor
helmet. Power armor is the perfect game designer’s metaphor.

But power armor isn’t simply relegated to fiction. The benefits of
power armor are obvious from a real-world perspective. As the Iraq War
has shown, soldiers remain vulnerable meat puppets, even when most
armored equipment can shrug off blasts… but soldiers are a resource
harder and harder to come by, and training them is expensive. Military
grade power armor could not only make a soldier more deadly and more
efficient, it could make him more safe.

For just such reasons, DARPA (the United States Defense Advanced
Resarch Projects Agency) have been looking into power armor since 1986.
Unsurprisingly, the project’s founder was inspired by a copy of Starship Troopers
he read while in the hospital. The project’s progress has been steady,
but slow: The current prototype can only walk one mile on a full
charge, but it allows its wearer to easily lift over 200 pounds. It
doesn’t end there: Japan is looking at power armor for purely pacifist
reasons. Faced with a graying population, it is thought that in another
30 years, the elderly will outnumber the work force by 2:1 in Japan.
Power armor, then, is being looked towards as a solution for geriatric
care — just slap a candy striper in an exoskeleton and she can lift a
paralyzed octogenarian with ease. And, while we’re at it, let’s not
forget Troy Hurtubise, who designs practical power armor for duking it out with grizzly bears.

So progress on power armor is progressing slowly, but it is no
longer a technology solely the domain of science fiction. In fact, it
seems reasonable to assume that most of us will see some type of power
armor in our lifetimes… if only to battle the wild grizzly bears of
the future that wish to devour our elderly charges.

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