With recent advancements in technology, the distinction between science and science fiction is slowly, yet steadily, disappearing. As a child, mechanical engineer Dan Baechle fell in love with the 1986 sci-fi classic, Aliens. Inspired by the movie’s Caterpillar Power Loader, Baechle has created an incredibly innovative mechatronic arm exoskeleton, which he calls the MAXFAS. Designed to enhance the shooting accuracy of newly-trained soldiers, the technology is currently being tested by the US Army.
Precision is of paramount importance on the battlefield. Not only does it determine the fate of the enemy, but good marksmanship is essential when it comes to saving one’s life, in the face of adversity. The problem with most new recruits, however, is that the stress and anxiety of real-life combat, more often than not, result in mild nervous tremors that in turn sabotage the soldier’s shooting proficiency. It is indeed quite similar to when the light of a laser pointer, aimed at the opposite wall of the room, exhibits a slight, but consistent, movement. A scientist at the US Army Research Laboratory (ARL), Baechle has come up with an intriguing solution, in the form of a wearable robotic exoskeleton. He said:
Soldiers need to be able to aim and shoot accurately and quickly in the chaos of the battlefield. Training with MAXFAS could improve Soldiers’ accuracy, and reduce current time and ammunition requirements in basic training.
The contraption is modeled after a similar device, developed by the University of Delaware, to help restore proper arm motions in stroke patients. But for convenience on the battlefield, Baechle used carbon fiber, as a way of making the exoskeleton lighter, more flexible and subsequently, more comfortable. When mounted on the user’s arm, the motors, located behind the shoulder joint, pull the cables of the exoskeleton, much like a puppeteer does with his puppets. A set of sensors, attached to the arm braces, detects any sort of tremor, if present. Signals from the sensors in turn prompt the motors to rectify the twitching, without hindering voluntary motion of the wearer’s arm. Eric Wetzel, of ARL, said:
At ARL, we strive to develop new approaches to challenging army problems, and are especially attracted to high-risk projects that could drastically improve soldier capabilities. Dan’s work demonstrates that the integration of advanced materials, robotics, and control algorithms can help address a critical army requirement—shooting proficiency—in an unconventional way.
According to Baechle, initial testing has proved the efficacy of the technology. Subjects, who wore the MAXFAS during a shooting trial, reported a noticeable decrease in their hand or arm tremors, even after the device was removed. This relates to better shooting accuracy, and improved performance, on the battlefield, especially for those still new to shooting live targets. The researcher said:
You could have the greatest proof of concept, but what is important is demonstrating the value of the device to those with army mission requirements. My vision is that one day, a more mature version of MAXFAS could be used to improve aim on the battlefield despite any adverse conditions… In science, we are making great progress toward making science fiction a reality.