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Exoskeletons in science fiction

Whether it's armor to increase the body's resistance to modern exoskeletons or camouflage clothing to increase soldiers' discretion and stealth, soldiers have been wearing protective clothing and attachments for several millennia.

Today, we are witnessing the beginnings of a new generation of systems designed to both protect and increase the fighter's strength and resistance, sometimes erasing them from the enemy's detection systems, whether in the form of exoskeletons, connected "body armor," or adaptive camouflage suits.

Science fiction has been a leader in this field for many years, both in literature, comics, cinema and TV series, with sometimes particularly inspiring approaches for the engineers responsible for this type of programs. In this article we present the five most interesting combat equipment from the Scyfy universe, in order to examine their peculiarities and the relevance of the proposed concept.

1- Aliens: The Return: Exo Skeleton for M56 Smart Gun

In 1986, James Cameron directed one of his first blockbusters Aliens - The Return Tells the adventure of Ellen Ripley accompanied by a squad of Space Marines on a planet undergoing terraforming, LV-426, to face the "Xenomorphs", the creatures that had struck down the crew of the Nostromo in the first work of the series.

There are certain aspects that will distinguish Cameron throughout his long and successful film career, particularly the precision with which he designs the military equipment of the future, including the M56 Smart Gun combat system of Drake and Vasquez, two of the film's most charismatic Space Marines.

The Smart Gun consists of a heavy machine gun (18 kg) designed for dynamic fire support of infantry squads, and a simplified exoskeleton that allows the distribution of the weight of the weapon and ammunition, as well as the absorption of the recoil of the shot, without affecting the mobility of the combat team and without requiring support during firing.

In addition, a helmet sighting system completes the range and allows Space Marines great firepower over time and as the battle moves.

The support arm of the Sailors' M56 in Aliens: The Return is an exoskeleton accessible with current technology
Colonial Marines Vasquez and Drake with their M56 Smart Guns are among the most charismatic characters in James Cameron's film

The proposed principle recalls certain experiments around the Gatling M134 machine gun attached to combat armor, without the latter offering the same fluidity in shooting as in movement. James Cameron pushed the level of detail to imagine the specific movements associated with the use of the M56, in a dynamic inspired by martial arts such as ju-jitsu or aikido, giving a cat-like plasticity to the movements of the Marines.

If, on the other hand, this technology and these tactics seem to be effective against Xenomorphs (and again...), we understand that the gunner is particularly vulnerable to enemy fire, especially since the support arm system does not seem to be suitable for cover, which is essential for infantry progress.

Nevertheless, the physical and logical link between the weapon, the helmet's sighting system and the combat armor was remarkably visionary in 1986, when we were just beginning to implement this type of technology.

2- Dune: The distillery

Dune by Frank Herbert was published in 1965 and is one of the mainstays of classic science fiction, along with the Foundations and Robots cycle by e' Azimov and Chasing the Slans by Van Vogt.

If the plot is to be associated with a universe close to the space opera very popular at the end of the 60s, Herbert decided to break with many codes of science fiction of that time, eliminating the concept of robotics and artificial intelligence after a war between humans and machines (the Buthler Jihad), as well as the use of laser weapons made impossible by the mysterious "Holtzman effect" that would lead to the destruction of the shooter and the target when a laser hits a shield.

Above all, Herbert positioned the action of Dune on the desert planet of Arrakis, also called Dune, which is also the home of the most indispensable resource in the universe, Spice (an allegory of oil), and of an indigenous people who will form the backbone of the story, the Fremen. To survive on Dune, the Fremen developed a survival and combat equipment called "Distille", specially designed for the extreme and arid climate of the planet.

Distilled Dune
On September 15, 2021, a new adaptation of the novel Dune, directed by Canadian Denis Villeneuve, was released in France.

The depictions of Distille in David Lynch's 1984 film and in the 1990s miniseries differ from the description in the novel, which is heavily inspired by the clothing of Bedouin nomads, whose culture will serve as a thread for the writing of the novel and its plot.

However, the function remains the same, which is, on the one hand, to protect the wearer from heat, radiation and abrasion by the sand and, above all, to limit the loss of water from the body by collecting all water losses (sweat, urine, respiration) and then filtering these fluids to make them drinkable again.

Obviously, this issue has taken on its full significance for forces deployed in hostile environments, such as the deserts of Iraq, Syria, or Mali, or in the Afghan mountains, where the delivery of potable water has been one of the most critical, restrictive, and often costly logistical challenges for Western forces in terms of men and equipment.

To support the 5,000 soldiers in Operation Serval, the French armies had to transport 43,000 liters of drinking water per day, a logistical weight far greater than that of fuel and ammunition combined, for example.

The U.S. DARPA has also been actively addressing the issue since 2019. by developing a new technology to extract humidity via metamaterials using a very small amount of electrical energy, potentially provided by portable solar panels.

Similarly, American firefighters have developed equipment that traps sweat to incorporate it into protective clothing, increasing the firefighter's resistance to heat and thermal radiation over time.

Obviously, the development of equipment capable of effectively and actively protecting against the heat while at least partially recovering the body's water losses and converting them to potable water would greatly benefit the combatant's autonomy in a hostile environment while significantly reducing the associated logistical burden.

The progress made in recent years, particularly in the field of metamaterials, could lead to breakthroughs in this area more or less in the short term and to Frank Herbert's Distille Fremen being approached.

3- Edge of Tomorrow: Exosuit Combat Exoskeleton

The battle against nearly technology-less but terrifyingly powerful and voracious aliens has become a very popular theme for science fiction in recent years, with films like "Silence" and the recent "The Tomorrow War."

It was also "Pitch of a Japanese Light", published in 2004 under the title "All you need is Kill" by author H. Sakurazaka and later adapted by Doug Liman in the film "Edge of Tomorrow".

Beyond the principle of foresight and time loop that is at the core of the plot of the hero, Lieutenant Colonel William Cage (Tom Cruise), the film stages a relevant vision of what could be in the more or less near future military technologies in the field of exoskeletons, while these technologies are already the focus of many programs in the United States, Russia or China.

In order to fight very fast aliens with phenomenal strength in the movie, the soldiers use a heavy combat exoskeleton, the exosuit, which allows them to significantly increase their abilities (strength, endurance, etc.) as well as their firepower, especially thanks to a heavy machine gun and a rocket launcher attached to the skeleton's limbs.

While the film places great emphasis on certain coherent details, particularly regarding the limited autonomy of the unit or the composition of the air assault group, it is strangely lacking in certain aspects such as communication or cooperative engagement, as the battles resemble medieval clashes rather than modern combat.

Edge morning exoskeleton

Be that as it may, the exosuit exoskeleton comes very close in both spirit and form to the goals of current programs in this field. However, the latter, as with all robots, suffer from a limitation in terms of the energy required to make them truly effective, while current battery technology or mobile power generation remains insufficient to make these devices relevant on the battlefield.

For example, exoskeletons developed in China, primarily to enable soldiers to carry a heavier load over time, especially at altitude, offer only a two-hour range when fully charged, which can be useful for connectivity but remains very inadequate in combat.

However, the potential of this technology is so promising that, despite current limitations, its development is dynamic and sustainable, at least within the world's three major military powers.

4- The width: Goliath battle suit

Of all the science fiction series produced in the last 20 years, "The Expanse" is undoubtedly the most successful in terms of plausible scenario and technology.

The story is set in the near future, when the solar system has been colonized by humanity and three factions are facing each other: Earth under the auspices of the United Nations, Mars under a paramilitary regime, and the Great Asteroid Belt, the weakest militarily and most discordant, but providing the two main players with natural resources.

Apart from the plot, reminiscent of that of The Iron Throne, the entire series is designed with amazing scientific and physical precision, far from the codes of traditional science fiction.

Therefore, gravity and the effects of acceleration, especially in the context of space travel and its physiological effects, play a central role throughout history, and spacecraft spend their time turning around to accelerate and then decelerate while maintaining the onboard gravity that allows the crew to work.

The weaponry used is also very plausible: the massive use of railguns and missiles as well as the battles between spaceships are reminiscent of naval battles of the 18th century.

Martian Marine Bobbie Draper (Frankie Adams) and her Goliath suit during a high-speed maneuver aboard the Rocinante

In this field, the Goliath combat armor is a concentrate of technologies and applied physics. It is at the same time exoskeleton, battle armor and pressure suit, allowing Martian soldiers to fight in space with or without gravity, respecting all the codes of these three elements.

Moreover, while Martians grow up under a lower gravity than Earth, this allows them to compensate for the effects of a stronger gravity on their organism, such as on Earth, to the extent that it is possible to withstand the very high accelerations to which spacecraft are subjected when maneuvering at high speed.

In contrast to Edge of Tomorrow's exosuit, communication and the role of cooperative engagement are frequently emphasized in the series, especially through the Goliath armor. Currently, this vision of militarization of space is not relevant, and the out-vehicle excursion outfits worn by astronauts are solely for survival considerations.

But if space were militarized, it is likely that The Expanse's vision of Goliath armor would quickly reach the realm of possibility.

5- Ghost in the Shell: Cyborg Major Kusanagi

Ghost in the Shell is a masterpiece of cyber-punk culture by Masamune Shirow, first published in 1989. It describes a future in which cybernetics and bionics are the two pillars on which human society is built.

The heroine, Major Motoko Kusanagi, is a cyborg, a human brain transplanted into a fully cybernetic robotic body, giving her very advanced military capabilities, both in combat and cyber.

As a member of a special anti-crime division, Department 9, she fights against hackers who are able to take control of the human mind, the famous "spirit" that is the soul of people, by hacking their cybernetic implants.

From a certain point of view, Major Kusanagi's cybernetic and robotic body represents the ultimate culmination of the notion of exoskeleton and battle armor, reducing the role of man to its simplest expression, his brain and soul.

Theroptic Kusanagi spirit in the shell
Major Kusanagi's thermoplastic camouflage in Ghost in the Shell is one of the most spectacular visual aspects of his cyborg body. But this principle is now finding its way into research programs that could not be more serious.

If the implantation of a human brain into a body or a cybernetic interface is far from possible today according to the current state of science, bionics, i.e. the enhancement of the performance of the body and the human mind through technological implants, is one of the most promising long-term fields of research in the military sector.

Its immediate applications involve monitoring vital constants, geolocation, and military communications, but already extend into more advanced areas, such as the use of human-machine interfaces controlled directly by brainwaves, or the repair of limbs or organs damaged or destroyed by technological alternatives.

One of the other particularly interesting aspects of Motoko Kusanagi's body is her use of a camouflage technique called thermo-optic camouflage, which allows light to bend to make the subject invisible, even in the infrared spectrum.

This approach is currently the subject of very serious work by several people and is referred to as "cloaking", a topic we covered in a previous article.


Whether they are writers, mangaka, or filmmakers, science fiction authors sometimes offer real insights into the development of defense technologies, as well as their context of use and the constraints and dangers that surround them.

The field of combat equipment is one of the examples where this ability to project is particularly interesting to observe and often relevant far beyond the simple narrative description that accompanies it.

We therefore understand why initiatives such as the French Defense Innovation Agency's "Red Team" have emerged and what they can do, if used properly, to move beyond the formal framework of defense equipment design, especially when going beyond the obvious applications of existing technologies.

In the field of defense, as in the other fields, imagination is the only limit that cannot be crossed with certainty, since it is impossible to imagine something that has not been imagined beforehand.

And science fiction in all its forms most likely plays a role far beyond that tentatively ascribed to it today, especially since it often offers a much broader and more complex vision than the simple application of technology.

Source: Armor and exoskeleton: science fiction shows the way (

Tom Illauer

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