So you may or may not have heard the news, but the government is trying to build a real-life Iron Man suit. Yeah. That’s a real thing. The project, called TALOS (short for Tactical Assault Light Operator Suit), is looking at a variety of different technologies that could provide new levels of defense for individual soldiers in the form of enhanced body armor. It could include everything from nanotech liquids that condense to impenetrable solids on impact to Google-glass style eyewear that increases the soldier’s field of vision and provides valuable intel on the local landscape. From what we’re hearing, this is some straight up, genuine comic-book, video game level ambition here. And to be honest, I dig it.
The overall goals of the project include increasing strength, decreasing vulnerability, and making soldiers better connected. Hydraulics attached to body armor are the frontrunners for increasing strength, as they would quite directly increase the force of any movement the soldier makes. The nanotech liquids I mentioned earlier are in fact a real thing, and are being seriously considered as a means to strengthen standard Kevlar to help protect soldiers from gunfire. The liquids would shift from liquid to solid on impact, thus strengthening a soldier’s defenses without weighing them down. Anything from Google-glass caliber visual aids to satellite communications built into the equipment could help to increase connectivity between an operating team of soldiers and the centers of information they rely on to successfully and safely complete their missions.
In an interview with NPR, Adm. Bill McRaven describes how the idea arose following the death of one of his soldiers in Afghanistan. The soldier was killed entering a room during a hostage rescue operation, which drove McRaven to question why soldiers aren’t being protected to the fullest possible extent when under fire. Now even with government spending being heatedly debated in literally every avenue of public discourse, that’s a hell of a convincing question. It is very easy to argue that we don’t need to pour any more money into the ever widening maw of defense spending (which continues to dwarf other nations’ military budgets). But it isn’t so easy to argue against protecting our soldiers better.
A large part of the reason that people argue against greater military spending is that it’s largely inefficient (we won’t get into any moral or ethical questions here, as I have neither the time nor the patience for those). We pour greater and greater amounts of money into the military industrial complex, but don’t see our soldiers getting safer or wars ending quicker. Quite the opposite actually. And it’s pretty easy to get pessimistic about that fact, and find stories like this distasteful. But a project like TALOS actually does have the potential to give our troops something positive, a real benefit to their well-being while in danger. The greatest tragedy of the whole situation will undoubtedly be the cost. A rig comprised of nanotech upgraded Kevlar, hydraulic body armor, and high-end visual and communication technologies will no doubt be considered too costly to be viable for our soldiers, perhaps even on the special ops field. And that’s kind of a shame when you think about it. But that may just be the overly excitable, nerdy eight year old in me really wanting to see a real life Iron Man.
Now in other news, today, over 140 nations have agreed upon and begun signing a treaty that will limit mercury pollution worldwide. The Minamata Convention, named for a Japanese city that suffered from one of the world’s worst cases of Mercury poisoning, will help to combat dramatically rising mercury levels worldwide. This is of particular concern in Southeast Asia, which is now considered to have the highest mercury emissions in the world. The terms of the treaty cover a range of issues connected to mercury, including its sale, its use in industry, and its increasing use in small-scale gold mines. Mercury is highly toxic, especially in infants and before birth, as it can seriously affect biological development. Mercury is found in a number of forms in nature, but particularly in cinnabar, which, as it turns out, is not a make-your-own Cinnabon special offer, but just an everyday, potentially toxic mineral. Not all that different now that I think about it.
If you want to take a listen to the story about Adm. Bill McRaven on NPR, here it is:
For more information on the U.N. mercury treaty, check out the BBC’s article here, or the website for the Minamata convention itself: