Real-life superheroes are few and far between – mostly either weirdos who get off on spandex, grass-roots family campaigners or the odd bloke who cuts off wheel clamps.
That’s because as far as we know, there are no such thing as superpowers, meaning being a masked vigilante is, like, incredibly dangerous.
In the Marvel Universe, Iron Man is a bit different – he’s not a mutant or an alien, he just has a really cool outfit. So the question is, can science create an awesome suit of their own? That way, anyone could be Iron Man.
“Robotic human augmentation such as the Iron Man suit is partially here if you think of pressure suits for space or flight, with all the clever head up displays they have in their helmets,” says Dr. Peter Bentley, head of the Digital Biology Unit at University College London.
“In one sense the aircraft that a fighter pilot sits within is like an Iron Man suit - it protects the pilot, gives him amazing abilities to fly, is fully weaponised, and has a large number of computer systems to help him. The only difference is that the aircraft is not the shape of a man - which is usually quite helpful when you want to fly.”
Certainly there is a lot of money being ploughed into emulating Iron Man, but according to Bentley most of the elements of the suit – repulsor beams, a tiny but seemingly limitless power supply, etc. – remain science fiction.
Still, cutting-edge companies like Lockheed Martin and Raytheon Sarcos are investigating the next stage of humanoid exoskeleton, even if they’re more interested in military use than humanitarian (just like Tony Stark at the start of the franchise).
Lockheed Martin’s HULC suit (see what they did there?) is an anthropomorphic exoskeleton that they like to called a wearable robot, run using with “mantonomous systems”. Meanwhile, Raytheon’s XOS2 is similar, allowing its user to carry large loads without effort and climb terrain without tiredness, while remaining easy to control.
Neither of these are ready for real-world use, primarily because of power issues – the XOS2’s battery lasts for around 30 minutes, while the HULC can last for up to five hours. The US Army also has a program known as the Tactical Assault Light Operator Suit (TALOS) which is being worked on by boffins at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. But having been criticised in Congress, it looks like the finished product is a ways off – the military initially anticipated it to be combat-ready in 2018.
“There is a lot of interest in creating more humanoid robotic systems,” admits Bentley. “The first step before we can make them autonomous is to hook them up to human operators. The operators don’t normally want to be inside the robot as there’s no great advantage (you can control the robot just as well sitting in your comfortable office) and there are plenty of disadvantages (you might get killed if the robot gets into serious trouble).”
And that’s the big problem with any kind of suit – death of the wearer. It’s fine to assume the suit is can be made of a highly-protective material. But in the movies, we see Tony getting beaten to a pulp by War Machine, the Kree, Sentinels and more, all confrontations that in real-life would have seen his brain and organs turned to mush as they whacked against the inside of his costume.
“It’s true that a real-life Iron Man suit would need some very special internal protection, otherwise the human operator would be crushed,” explains Dr. Bentley. “Perhaps the most effective might be to have the human be submerged in a liquid inside the suit, and breathe a liquid (remember ‘The Abyss’?), as liquids are less compressible than gasses so your insides will rattle around a bit less.
“Nevertheless it is well known that many internal injuries in car accidents are caused by our soft organs moving and colliding with our harder skeletons, so the chances are high that you will be damaged if you decide to use your Iron Man suit in the rather extreme ways as depicted in the movies.”
In other words, for the time being, the only place to dress as Iron Man is at Comic-Con or a children’s birthday party. Hopefully Ultron won’t show up.
Photos: Everett/Moviestore/Rex_Shutterstock/Raytheon-Sarcos/Lockheed Martin