The British Ministry of Defence (MOD) has a new soldier that costs £1.1 million (US$1.8 million) and goes by the odd name of “Porton Man.” Based at the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (Dstl) in Porton Down, Wiltshire, Porton Man isn't your average squaddie. He’s a robotic mannequin designed to test suits and equipment for the British armed forces in order to help protect them against chemical and biological weapons.
The threat of nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons (NBC) comes with the territory for modern soldiers. Aside from the horrific effects of the weapons themselves, the mere threat of their use requires military personnel to carry out their duties wearing all-encompassing protective clothing that is hot, suffocating, and restrictive. To improve both effectiveness and durability of NBC suits for British forces, Dstl is responsible for testing them using actual warfare agents.
The problem is that testing a suit’s effectiveness against nerve gas or anthrax is tricky because, like testing a bulletproof vest, it’s not exactly the sort of thing you want to do while someone is wearing it. For decades, the answer has been to use mannequins kitted out with sensors as stand-ins for soldiers both at the Dstl and other places, but mannequins tend to be static affairs that don’t tell you much about how the suit will work while moving about.
This is where Porton Man comes in. It’s name is derived from Porton Down, the location of Dstl, where Britain once developed biological and chemical weapons and is now dedicated to developing ways of detecting and countering them. The robot was designed by i-bodi Technology Ltd and is the only animatronic robot of its type in the UK.
Porton Man is designed to be more than a clothes horse. Suspended in its motorized frame, it’s built to act as a realistic replacement for a soldier for testing purposes. Using advanced lightweight materials derived from Formula 1 racers, the latest animatronics, and kitted out with over 100 sensors, it can determine how well and NBC suit provides protection with walking, marching, running, sitting, kneeling, and even while sighting a weapon while providing scientists with real-time data analysis.
“Our brief was to produce a lightweight robotic mannequin that had a wide range of movement and was easy to handle," says Jez Gibson-Harris, Chief Executive Officer of i-bodi Technology. "Of course there were a number of challenges associated with this and one way we looked to tackle these challenges was through the use of Formula 1 technology. Using the same concepts as those used in racing cars, we were able to produce very light but highly durable carbon composite body parts for the mannequin.”
The video below shows Porton Man showing off his moves.