Power Armor. A powered exoskeleton with a tough outer shell, coupled with twice the mobility of a normal soldier and the strength of an elephant.
For decades, media has emulated what scientists have been struggling to create for millennia. Armor strong enough to both protect the wearer, and strengthen them through mechanical support.
In recent years, researchers have nearly achieved this kind of technology, with body armor reaching durability tougher than steel, and hobbyists making exoskeletons which can lift hundreds of pounds.
In order to create the ideal fully functioning power armor, the exoskeleton should pass the following tests:
- Be able to repeatedly withstand bullets, explosives, or flames without any serious injury to the wearer.
- Have the same mobility as a person wearing a normal military uniform, and not hinder the bending of joints, or get caught on any foreign object while moving.
- Be able to lift, and carry a significant amount of weight unhindered.
- Be able to fall great distances without injury
Those are tall orders and have yet to be combined in any suit. In the exoskeleton video above by The Hacksmith, the exoskeleton greatly hinders how fast he can move, with each step being a sort of hobble than an actual step. Any chance of incorporating armor into an exoskeleton is years away.
Even if an exoskeleton had the strength and speed necessary of power armor, the the armor aspect of the exoskeleton would likely be a hindrance to its abilities.
The most well known portrayal of Power Armor, the Fallout series’ aptly named “Power Armor” would be forced to account for the weight of the heavy armor, which could be upwards of several thousand pounds of pure steel. This would be a problem for the suit’s actual strength as it would have to be several times more powerful than it would be without the armor.
As well as being heavy, that weight just brings more questions such as how you can survive falling hundreds of feet when the suit barely slows the wearer down.
In Fallout’s power armor, the second you hit the ground, your body would crumble inside the suit, with your torso pushing down into your knees, causing your thigh bones to shatter. The suit may be strong enough to survive the effects of hitting the ground at terminal velocity (the highest speed an object can move before wind-resistance stops them from accelerating) but a human is not. In fact, the weight of the suit would make survivability even less likely than if you weren’t wearing it since you weigh more. Just because you’re inside Power Armor, that doesn’t mean you’re immune to the effects of gravity. The armor does not account for Newton’s third law, in which for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.
While many have looked to the Fallout series’ power armor for inspiration, we should be looking to the Crysis series as its armor could actually exist with near-modern technology.
In Crysis, the power-armor is known as a “Nanosuit” made with Nanofiber technology. Nanoscale Carbon, also known as Graphene, is a single-atom thick sheet of carbon arranged in a hexagonal-shaped grid.
Graphene sheets are the strongest material known to man. Its a hundred times stronger than steel, and weighs approximately 10,194 times less than steel. In a closeup of the nanosuit, the fiber is woven into braided bundles.
Those are called carbon nanotubes, and are sheets of graphene rolled into tubes. These are even stronger than graphene sheets, and equally flexible.
Carbon nanotubes can be spun together to create a fiber similar to the Nanosuit of Crysis. They can also be bundled together hundreds of thousands of times to create hyper-dense, but highly bendable fabric almost identical to that of the Nanosuit.
If the suit is so thin, how will the suit make you stronger or faster?
Carbon nanotubes act as muscle fibers hundreds of times stronger than human muscle. When heated, carbon nanotubes contract. The suit’s joints and other movement points are not covered in the fiber, but rather metal parts. These parts are likely meant to super-heat different parts of the suit in order to contract and extend at ludicrous speeds. This would allow faster movement by contracting leg muscles at intense speeds. The suit would armor-up by contracting all points on the body, thus tightening armor making it more dense and harder to penetrate.
This ability to contract at high speeds also explains why the suit is capable of falling long distances. The key to falling long distances is absorbing the impact of the ground in one of two ways depending on the height of the fall. Simply bending your knees as you hit the ground, or rolling.
By slowing the time it takes for a fall to hit the person who fell, the effect is lowered. By rolling after a long fall, the weight of the impact is dispersed throughout the body and lessened significantly.
This is a method commonly used by Parkour artists when jumping long distances, known as a PK roll.
When a Nanosuit hits the ground, the suit can contract quickly enough to roll at the exact time, speed, and distance necessary to absorb the shock of the fall.
You can’t do that with heavier, thick armor as a proper combat roll would not work when you have pauldrons the size of a freight train.
What About Iron Man? How Would His Suit Work?
Well for one, Iron Man’s suit would have to work similarly to the Nanosuit, except it would be nowhere near as strong and likely cost billions of dollars more than a nanosuit. Iron Man’s suit has only ever been shown to have an entirely mechanical and electrical interior. It is plausible that an Iron Man suit could be made, but it would have to be made from a yet-discovered metal or alloy (a mixture of metals, such as bronze being copper and tin) as it is showed with great strength similar to the Nanosuit. Most common metals would likely crumble under the weight of several tons.
The Iron Man suit is usually depicted as being made of a gold and titanium alloy, which would have a lower melting point, but have be much denser and tough to bend. Although the alloy is four times stronger than titanium on its own, it would not be nearly as strong as carbon nanotubes unless the Marvel universe’s fictional metal “Vibranium” was used in the metal (which in some canons of the Marvel universe, it is) the suit would crumble under great stress. Edit: Previous versions of this paragraph incorrectly stated that a gold-titanium alloy would be weaker than the materials on their own. This is false, and the article has been corrected.
Regardless, any military faction would prefer armor similar to a nanosuit over Iron Man’s as it would be easier to manufacture graphene sheets in mass quantities. A large percentage of the world is made of Carbon, whereas buying gold to make armor seems a bit unrealistic.
Power Armor is not a term which should be constrained to one type. While most would prefer a suit that can do everything a Nanosuit could do, Power armor from Fallout is still plausible. The armor simply wouldn’t be able to survive falling more than a few feet.
The Nanosuit is not even the only idea of Power Armor design that could work. Halo’s “Mjolnir” armor also has basis in real-world technology but DARPA is a few decades off from energy-shield technology.
Whether we’ll be seeing new ideas or methods of armoring exoskeletons in the future is up to the great minds of the world! If you have an idea or counterpoint to anything I’ve mentioned in this article, go ahead and leave it in the comment section below!
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