(This was originally posted in Financial Express by HUMA SIDDIQUI)
DRDO Developing Exoskeleton For The Indian Soldiers Posted In High Alt. With the Sino-India border issue likely to be guarded more intensely by both the sides, any support to make the lives of the soldiers safer and conducive shall go a long way in their motivation and operational efficiency. The exoskeletons are rapidly emerging as part of the modern troops body gadget and Armed Forces may be keenly looking forward to the culmination of this project, far sooner than many others still within the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) Lab environment.
Dispite many years of R&D on the exoskeleton, DRDO has yet to field any operational technology in the field of an exoskeleton. In the case of China, it has recently come out with military-grade exoskeleton suits which are powered and used for carrying ammunition. And, reports indicate that an earlier version of the non-powered exoskeleton suit was also used by the Chinese border defense troops in the later part of 2020 for supporting operations like supply delivery, patrol etc.
How did it help the Chinese?
This has helped the PLA border defense troops in Southwest China’s Region to carry out tasks in high altitude inhuman environments. Work is in progress to supply more types of mission specific exoskeleton suits. The operational advantages achieved have been claimed by use of these few kilogram exoskeleton suits, which are like 20 kilograms of assisted strength, relieve more than fifty percent of the load burden, thereby, reducing the risks of injury to the troops.
In the case of India, DRDO which has still not completed its R&D and is far behind, let alone looking at improvements in the efficacy of the product to be able to carry out improvements.
“In any case, user feedback after operational deployment is usually an important aspect in any development work, and wishes to be seen as a chance to enhance the likelihood of supporting the Indian Troops, especially before onset of harsh winters in the Galwan Valley,” explained a senior officer, on condition of anonymity.
For the troops who are deployed at high altitude — Siachen, Ladakh, there is a requirement of special equipment and clothing which will help in their movements, as well as special sleeping tents and rations which will keep them in good health and protect them from harsh weather conditions.
More about Exoskeletons
Multiple R&D in the bio-engineering and electro-medical technology are carried out by DRDO and this is done so that technological advancement reaches the soldiers.
Exoskeletons can be worn over a regular uniform or combat gear so that a soldier’s strength is fully augmented. And this helps in ensuring soldiers who are on patrol duty in high altitude terrains wear leg-gear which assists in walking in the snow. This then reduces fatigue and exhaustion which is faced by the soldier in a thin oxygen climate.
For the Indian soldiers, such futuristic technology can help in moving around in the minus 30-40 degrees Celsius temperature along the Line of Actual Control (LAC).
“AD-hoc projects like Exoskeletons are ideally suited to be handed over to the IITs and the private sector companies as it does not require much resources. In DRDO, all resources and manpower are being used, and they have no sanctions from the services, hence there is no urgency to complete the R&D,” suggested the officer quoted about on condition of anonymity.
What is the current status of Exoskeletons?
DEBEL is the nodal lab doing the R&D on this and is utilizing in-house expertise in disciplines of Biomedical/Biomechanics, actuators and control systems.
Response from DRDO
Last December (2020), in response to a question by Financial Express Online, DRDO had said that, “For enhancing Indian soldiers’ performance in military scenarios, several configurations including lower/upper extremity, and full-body exoskeletons are being developed and several DRDO labs are involved in this.”
In June 2021, responding to Financial Express Online on the current status of Exoskeletons, DRDO in an email response says: “DRDO has been entrusted with a requirement to augment the soldier’s capability during logistics activities performed by the military. Therefore, the biomechanical characteristics of the soldier during various logistics activities such as transportation of goods, ration, ammunition etc., through diverse terrain, for long distances with their complete military gear has been systematically captured and analyzed.”
It goes on to add, “Exoskeleton systems are being designed and developed for specific military logistic applications involving bending, lifting of payload, walking with payload anterior to the body, and unloading the same. Various concepts and configurations are being designed and developed currently. DRDO has been progressing on the different design approaches to build an augmentative exoskeleton for the Indian Army. There have mainly been two schools of thought/approaches for the design of augmentative exoskeletons, namely passive/unpowered augmentative exoskeleton and powered augmentative exoskeleton. The passive exoskeletons use passive elements such as springs, dampeners etc., to transfer the payload to the ground, however active exoskeletons not only transfer the payload to the ground but also impart energy through the actuators resulting in reduced energy consumption by the soldier.”