In his controversial novel “Starship Troopers,” sci-fi legend Robert Heinlein wrote of a future military corps called the Mobile Infantry. Highly selective and totally volunteer like today’s US Marine Corps, the MI were usually the point of the spear, and were equipped with spacesuit like outfits that augmented their natural muscular abilities. The so-called powered suits – far more advanced than, say, Robocop’s – allowed them to run faster and farther, lift heavy objects, carry immense loads including all sorts of weapons and ordnance, and to survive attacks by many types of weapons.

The future is knocking at our door.

At the 2009 Marine South Expo at Camp Lejeune, NC, Lockheed Martin and Berkeley Bionics gave the Marine Corps its first look at what might be called the Mark 1 MI suit. Dubbed the HULC – Human Universal Load Carrier – the powered “exoskeleton” was shown off to the Army a few weeks earlier. L-M is tasked to deliver a working version within 18-24 months.

The titanium framework allows the warrior to easily carry an extremely heavy load of gear – the demo at Marine South had 145 pounds of gear not counting the device itself – with the goal of enabling a Marine or Soldier to maintain a 3 mph pace long enough to cover 26 miles before the lithium ion battery pack would require charging. The system could include arm assistance that would enable them to lift heavy object easily and without risk of back injury.

Sensors pick up the Marine’s movements so the suit “anticipates” what he or she is about to do – walk, run, jump, squat, etc. The exoskeleton can be programmed to the Marine’s weight and height, allowing it to be customized to each wearer.

There’s a video showing what HULC can do… today. The challenges now are to continue to refine the system to operate even more smoothly, to improve battery life, and to make the units even lighter and more powerful.

As you might imagine, the futuristic exoskeleton drew a lot of attention from 2nd Division Marines, many of whom are just returned from or about to deploy to the Middle East and Southwest Asia. Dismounted Marines – a fancy way of saying Leathernecks on foot – often carry loads of 100 pounds, including uniform, weapons, armor, water and electronics. It’s a tough thing to do, even for these phenomenally fit young men and women. So something like this powered suit could help immensely.

Marine South is sponsored by our client, the Marine Corps League. This was the 17th show held at Camp Lejeune (pronounced, Luh-jern, per the family), bringing Marines and military suppliers together to discuss current products and services to make them better for Marines in the field. More than 3,600 visitors checked out items and services from 200 vendors.