Back in February, while announcing two new Pentagon-sponsored manufacturing hubs in Chicago and Detroit, President Obama made a joke. "Basically," he said, "I'm here to announce that we're building Iron Man."
There was, of course, a kernel of truth to this: The Army is working on an Iron Man suit, called the Tactical Assault Light Operator Suit, or TALOS for short. Built by DARPA, the robotic exoskeleton is designed to be worn under a soldier's standard fatigues, increasing his or her strength, improving stamina, and offering limited protection from enemy gunfire. It looks pretty badass, too.
Which is all fine and good! But as any fair-weather superhero fan knows, TALOS is still a far cry from Tony Stark's canonical closet of Iron Man armors. So, we decided to take a look at some of the other real-life technologies being developed today to try and build something an avenging superhero might—or might not—actually want to wear. (Keyword: "try.")
How would it fly? What would its helmet do? What would even power the thing?
So we asked around. We talked with experts, dug around, and surveyed the current landscape of forward-thinking technologies available. We tried to build our own Iron Man.
And, well, uh, this is what we came up with:
You know you'd wear it.
While tiny, augmented-reality monocles like Google Glass will soon be available to anyone who wants one and has the scratch, military contractors like Raytheon insist that the combat helmet of the not-so-distant future will have advanced multi-sensory capabilities built into them, allowing wearers to see, hear, and feel the world around them with hyper awareness befitting, well, a hero. F-16 pilots, for example, already use advanced helmets equipped with 3-D audio to indicate which direction enemy fire is coming from. "If I hear where the enemy is coming from and the monocle gives some location information, you're going to save half a second to a second of thinking time," says Todd Lovell, technology director at Raytheon. The downside? It'd be really goddamn bulky.
Real-world feasibility score: 7/10
Tony Stark's voice-activated robo assistant is basically Google Now or Siri, right? Right. OKAY SIRI, FRY THAT BIRD WITH A LASER.
Real-world feasibility score: 9.5/10
The military's existing exoskeleton, in this case, was developed by Lockheed Martin, which licensed one of its experimental exoskeletons, codenamed the "HULC," from a little-known Berkeley-based company called Eksos Bionics in 2009. Originally, these designs were intended to help paraplegics regain their mobility, relying on gyroscopes to detect subtle shifts in the wearer's momentum to replace "deficient neuromuscular function." It's a little less Iron Man, in other words, and more Alien's Ripley using a power loader to stomp around.
Real-world feasibility score: 3/10
Researchers at MIT and France have built a self-assembling polymer material that, at just a few nanometers thick, is capable of stopping bullets. Yes, BULLETS. The nanostructure is comprised of alternative layers of a tough rubber and rigid glass, which, when taken together, absorb the impact of speeding projectiles by warping around them. That's not quite deflecting a tank mortar, but it'll do.
Real-world feasibility score: 4/10
In the Marvel Universe, every single one of Iron Man's suits is equipped with repulsor beams, which are essentially high-powered lasers he can use to blow away badguys. Obsessive tinkerers have even gone so far as to construct palm-mounted versions in their garages. Of note: Patrick Priebe, a German lab technician who was able to design a 1,000-milliwatt laser channeled through diode taken from a Casio projector. The resulting beam probably wouldn't even tickle the Hulk, but it can light stuff on fire.
Real-world feasibility score: 4/10
In the Marvel Universe, Iron Man is able to jet around the stratosphere by directing super hot plasma from the arc reactor in his chest to his heels, where tiny electromagnets are used to generate directional thrust. In fact, NASA already used similar thruster technology on some of its old rockets. The bad news, though, is that the actual engine is still far too enormous—think: space ship-sized—to attach to a human's foot without, say, quickly reducing the wearer to a warm pile of ashes. Sadly, a real-world Iron Man would probably have to wear a clunky jet pack with wings, such as the kind designed by Martin. It's less jetting around, and more hovering in place like a balloon.
Real-world feasibility score: 2.5/10
THE ARC REACTOR
All this crime-fighting tech needs something to power it. In the Marvel Universe, Stark wears something he calls an arc reactor in his chest. The problem with it, according to a Quora post by hydraulics engineer Ryan Carlyle, is that such a reactor has to smash particles together to generate power. "There is also a remarkable lack of cooling loops, turbines, or anything that a traditional thermal reactor would require," writes Carlyle. "Which means the arc reactor produces electricity directly, rather than by first generating heat." In other words: Not only is an arc reactor decidedly comic book fiction, but any real-world Iron Man suit would require a power cord plugged into a generator or battery. Not really a good look for fighting anything.
Real-world feasibility score: .01/10
[Illustrations by David Galletly for Fast Company]