Move over, Tony Stark; the US Navy is going Iron Man. The National Center for Manufacturing Sciences (NCMS) has ordered a pair of Fortis exoskeletons from Lockheed Martin for testing and evaluation. The unpowered exoskeletons won’t give sailors superhuman strength, but they will allow them to handle heavy equipment for longer periods with less fatigue.

One popular myth is that modern naval vessels are push-button workplaces where sailors spend all day staring at screens and clicking mice. In fact, life aboard even the most advanced warship has more in common with Admiral Nelson than Captain Picard, with crews carrying out demanding physical tasks at close quarters to keep the ship in fighting trim. They may not be hauling guns or setting sails, but when it comes to everyday tasks like loading munitions, rigging equipment, or just handling a portable sander, a surprising amount of brute strength and stamina is still required in modern navies.

"Ship maintenance often requires use of heavy tools, such as grinders, riveters or sandblasters," says Adam Miller, director of new initiatives at Lockheed Martin Missiles and Fire Control. "Those tools take a toll on operators due to the tools’ weight and the tight areas where they are sometimes used. By wearing the Fortis exoskeleton, operators can hold the weight of those heavy tools for extended periods of time with reduced fatigue."

The US armed forces have been looking into the possibilities of exoskeletons for years as government-backed development projects, such as Lockheed’s HULC and Raytheon’s XOS 2. But where the Army has concentrated on powered skeletons to help soldiers carry heavier loads over rough terrain, the Navy is interested in a day-to-day exoskeleton that sailors can use routinely.

Unlike powered exoskeletons, Fortis works like a frame that increases the wearer’s strength and endurance by channeling the weight of heavy objects away from the wearer's body and down through the exoskeleton to the ground. This allows operators to carry objects weighing up to 36 lb (16.3 kg) as if they were weightless. Lockheed says that Fortis with its Equipois ZeroG arm can reduce fatigue by 300 percent and improve productivity by 200 to 2,700 percent.

But if it sounds like something rigid, Lockheed says that Fortis is more like the steadicam rig used by filmmakers. It can be used in standing and kneeling positions, is adjustable to different heights and body types, and the joints and ergonomic design do not hinder movement or flexibility.

According to Lockheed, the US navy contract is the first procurement of the Fortis exoskeleton, and is intended to evaluate how to adapt the technology for defense needs and hand-tool applications at Navy shipyards.

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