China has joined the Great Exoskeleton Arms Race.
With America and Russia developing exoskeletons—essentially the powered armor suits depicted in science fiction and superhero films like Starship Troopers and Iron Man—it was inevitable that China would follow suit.
In October 2019, the People’s Liberation Army’s Army Equipment Department held a competition for the best exoskeleton designs. The contest featured fifty prototypes fielded by twenty-nine teams.
“As we all know, reloading artillery is tiring work,” said an article on Chinese social media platform WeChat. “This is especially true for large-caliber howitzers, whose shells often weigh tens of kilograms, and repeated movement of reloading artillery is exhausting, and many people suffer from deteriorative back problems starting at a young age, impacting the effectiveness of artillery operations.”
The competition included an exoskeleton “specially developed for artillery reloaders. The loaders, wearing mechanical power-assisted exoskeletons, were transformed into ‘Hercules’ effortlessly lifting 155-mm shells weighing between forty and fifty kilograms [88 to 110 pounds].” Other tests included light-duty mobility, the ability to bear weight while marching, and handling materials.
The WeChat article extolled the virtues of military exoskeletons. “In combat situations such as operations behind enemy lines, mountain warfare, on border patrols, or rescue and disaster relief, mobile platforms generally cannot reach mission areas or their fuel supplies are insufficient to operate for very long. Exoskeletons could enhance mobility while carrying heavy loads or adaptability to complex terrain while reducing the physical fatigue of long-term marching.”
Particularly interesting is the article’s assertion that China can’t and won’t fall behind other nations in developing military exoskeletons. “Many people believe exoskeletons remain in the realm of science fiction, but this view has been disproved, and with the advance of technology, the exoskeleton has become practical. Russia has released videos of soldiers on the Syrian battlefield employing K-2 exoskeletons for mine clearance operations, and several U.S. exoskeleton systems have been put into use on the battlefield in the Middle East.
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