Military’s ‘Iron Man’ armor could be a boon to Tampa

Six15 Technologies hopes its helmet will be picked for the Tactical Assault Light Operator Suit program

“Iron Man” is still alive and well at U.S. Special Operations Command’s headquarters at MacDill Air Force Base.

The Tactical Assault Light Operator Suit — TALOS for short and known as the Iron Man suit — “is absolutely a command priority” for Socom, said James “Hondo” Geurts, Socom’s top acquisition official.

TALOS is a new form of body armor that is supposed to be lighter, “smarter” and offer greater protection than what commandos currently wear. The program, initiated by William McRaven when he ran Socom, is being carried forward by his successor, Army Gen. Joseph Votel, said Geurts. On Dec. 18, the command issued an announcement seeking white papersfrom industry, academia, individuals and government organizations who can design, develop and test TALOS-related technologies.

“The intent is to accelerate the delivery of innovative TALOS capabilities to the Special Operations Forces (SOF) warfighter,” according to the announcement.With major universities and a robust defense contracting base in close proximity to the command, the Tampa area is well-suited to help foster TALOS-related innovation, said Geurts.

“It is a big deal for the Tampa area,” said Rick Homans, president and chief executive officer of the Tampa Hillsborough Economic Development Corp. The program, however, is not without its critics. Congress has requested greater oversight, and outgoing U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn included TALOS, with an estimated budget of $80 million over the next four years, in his annual “Wastebook” of what he deemed unneeded government expenditures. Socom has a different take, saying the technology will help save lives on the battlefield, and is seeking innovations to increase commando survivability, mobility and situational awareness and provide more lightweight power and user comfort. Among other things, Socom is seeking:

♦ Reduced weight and bulk protection against next-generation rifle rounds.

♦ Reduction of electromagnetic and acoustic signatures.

♦ Increased concealment from enemy observation.

♦ Exoskeleton systems to augment human strength, endurance and mobility, including transferring 200 pounds of TALOS system load from the operator’s frame and allowing the operator to move at a continuous running pace and a dash pace for short distances.

♦ Maximizing situational awareness, capturing sound and visuals in a 360-degree field of view and see-through stereoscopic heads up displays.

♦ Improved communications, command and control and intelligence systems, including over-the-horizon, wide-band communications in contested areas.

♦ Wearable, ruggedized, high-speed computing technology.

♦ Uninterrupted, untethered power that can support the exoskeleton and other components.

♦ Heat management to reduce metabolic rate and increase endurance, helmet cooling systems, next-generation fabrics for passive thermal management and integrated sensors to monitor oxygen, bio capabilities, wound stasis and electromechanical compensation.

The deadline for submitting white papers is Dec. 16, 2015, according to the announcement. Evaluations will take place in waves, depending on date of submission.

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The goal of the program, now in its second year, is to provide a fully operating prototype by 2018, said Geurts. But it has already produced dividends in terms of equipment for commandos and a reduction in the time it takes to bring a concept online.

The TALOS process has already resulted “in about 10 to 12 discoveries,” said Geurts, including a design for a wearable antenna system.

And over the summer, the command ran a test of an unpowered exoskeleton system.

There are also ongoing “industry days,” like one held last year at the University of South Florida, where those with ideas can share them with the command.

“But more than just equipment, we are now looking at a new way of doing business through this kind of combustion-chamber approach,” said Geurts. “We are putting everyone together through continuing dialogue and cooperative research.”

Unlike other major military commands, Socom has its own acquisition budget. With about $2 billion per year, that makes Socom uniquely positioned, by design, to rapidly field equipment and technology needed by commandos. By bringing together commandos, scientists, engineers and the buyers at Socom, the TALOS program improves on that, said Geurts. And Tampa is in a good position to be a big part of it, he said.

“Tampa itself has unique aspects,” he said. “It has great academia, a lot of great industry and my organization at Special Operations Command that can design and procure things.”

TALOS “really symbolizes the huge opportunity that exists to capitalize on Socom being here in Tampa,” said the EDC’s Homans. “This is the newest of the new technology. The boldest ideas. It is the highest level of innovation.”

Homans couldn’t put a number on what the ongoing development of the TALOS system would mean to the region. But with direct expenditures from Socom, plus spinoff use of the technology beyond the military, “TALOS is a big deal,” Homans said.

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That is especially true, Homans points out, because as the military budget has been slashed, money for Socom has actually increased. The command received a 10 percent bump in its base budget in the current fiscal year to $7.7 billion. That includes increases for research and development and acquisition.

“Socom is the one part of the military that is growing,” Homans said. “As the nature of combat changes, as the nature of our enemy changes, this is where the new solutions are going to emerge from and most of them have tremendous commercial applications.”

Like Homans, Rich McClain, a member of the Greater Tampa Defense Alliance board of directors, says TALOS will benefit the region beyond just its military applications.

“The Tactical Assault Light Operator Suit efforts in support of SOCOM has provided a platform for highly advanced research and development in exoskeleton technology that, in my view, is in its infancy in terms of the capability and what it could not only mean to the men and women in our military, but for many professions (medical, sports, industry production),” McClain said in an email.

“While Tampa and those defense contractors in the Tampa Bay area have benefited from this program thus far, it’s the out-years that hold promise. ... Tampa Bay, with its richness in technology, medical advancements, and our defense contractor base, is well-positioned to move the TALOS program further than ever envisioned ... highlighting the Tampa Bay area as a world-class technology hub.”

haltman@tampatrib.com