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China: exoskeletons for the army

Since January 2018, Norinco is no longer the only Chinese exoskeleton builder: the China Shipbuilding Industry Corporation's (CSIC) 707th Institute revealed off its own powered exoskeleton to senior Chinese military officers.

China exoskeletons for the army NORINCO 
NORINCO's exoskeleton (Picture source: NORINCO)

An exoskeleton to what purpose(s)? CSIC is advertising theirs as ideal to work on shipyards, a kind of place where people carry huge loads. Chinese military engineers have also developed the L-70 exoskeleton, first revealed by the 202 Institute of China Ordnance Industry Group in 2014 at the Zhuhai Airshow, and then in June 2015. Before that, the Nanjing Military Region's General Hospital built an exoskeleton that helped its wearer lift up to 36,28 kg (80 pounds).

Powered exoskeletons are being developed with plenty of military purposes in mind, including in combat operations. China's push in that direction is increasing. Should the current efforts be successful, Chinese infantry and special operators could not only carry heavier equipment for longer distances, but also attach body armor to individuals. This would make the Chinese exoskeletons stick to their US “colleagues”.

Practically, exoskeletons are designed to assist soldiers in a wide array of support tasks, including loading supplies and ammunition, getting heavy missiles onto airplanes, and repairing ships. So far, such exoskeletons, whether in the U.S., China or Europe, are generally intended for logistical and engineering purposes with time limitations due to their short range and battery life (most exoskeletons can only operate independently for several hours). But Chinese manufacturers express hope that upgrades to exoskeletons could make them suitable for frontline combat duties in difficult environments.

The initial prototype was quickly improved. Popular Science reports that, at a June 2015 presentation, the 202 Institute's updated exoskeleton showed upgrades, including a larger battery pack on the back, strengthened legs and more powerful, hip mounted hydraulic/pneumatic pumps to power leg movement. The exoskeleton can allow the user to carry over 100 pounds, with enough charge to walk 20km at a speed of 4.5 km/h (Lockheed Martin's HULC also has similar speed and endurance figures). The exoskeleton demonstrated enough flexibility to allow lateral ground movement: crawling in the mud while under enemy fire, for example. The presentation included computer generated videos showing exoskeleton wearing soldiers and infantry squads armed with assault rifles, while carrying huge personal loads in mountainous terrain.

Indeed, while exoskeletons would provide soldiers with the ability to individually carry heavier loads of ammunition, food, and batteries to improve performance and endurance in rough environments, they also have the carrying capacity to allow the average infantryman to carry a heavy machine gun or a whole body covering suit of armor. Doesn’t it somehow remind you of Avatar and Star Wars?

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