U.S. Army Develops Aim Assist Exoskeleton

Soldier takes aimEven for experienced marksmen, reliably hitting a target a few hundred yards down range can be a bit of a challenge. Factor in the stress and fatigue of combat, and making that shot gets a whole lot more difficult. Sure, there’s something to be said for the value of suppressive fire, but sooner or later soldiers have to hit their targets to succeed.

Humans are far from perfect when it comes to maintaining steady aim, especially in high-stress scenarios. You might feel rock steady, but throw a laser sight on your handgun and you’ll immediately notice all the little tremors and wobbles that conspire to throw you off target. At short range these tremors might not matter much, but at longer distances they can make a huge difference.

“Using the Army standard M16 rifle, moving the muzzle by just one-sixteenth of an inch will result in the shot being off target by more than 17 inches at 300 yards away,” explains Army Research Laboratory engineer Dan Baechle in an interview with Popular Science. “So even small tremors can result in huge aiming differences.”

Bear in mind that soldiers carry a great deal of weight as well. This contributes to fatigue and further compounds the problem.

That’s why Army engineers are working on a device that steadies a soldier’s aim for them.

It’s called the Mobile Arm Exoskeleton for Firearm Aim Stabilization, or MAXFAS. At first glance, it might look like the sort of brace you’d wear after an elbow injury. Take a closer look, however, and you’ll see that there’s some serious technology built into this particular arm brace.

MAXFAS utilizes a system of motors, cables, accelerometers and gyroscopes to detect and compensate for minuscule arm movements, thereby stabilizing the soldier’s aim and providing added support. Despite its relative complexity MAXFAS is remarkably light and discreet, weighing in at just 10 ounces thanks to its carbon fiber composite construction.

The system is based on similar exoskeletons developed for medical applications. CAREX, for example, is an exoskeleton used to help stroke victims relearn how to use their arms. Another source of inspiration was WOTAS, which helps to control tremors in Parkinson’s patients.

So how does MAXFAS work in practice?

Last year, the Army conducted preliminary experiments on the system with 15 volunteers, most of whom were inexperienced at shooting. The researchers found that 14 of the 15 participants showed a measurable improvement in their accuracy while wearing MAXFAS. On average, accuracy improved by 27 percent.

In a second round of testing, the participants were asked to shoot again unassisted five minutes after using MAXFAS. On average, their accuracy improved was 15 percent better than baseline results. A control group who hadn’t used MAXFAS demonstrated a decrease in accuracy in the second round of shooting. This suggests that MAXFAS could be used to train soldiers to steady their own aim as well.

What does the future hold for MAXFAS?

Currently, the Army’s aim stabilizing exoskeleton still needs to be tethered to stationary motors and a power source. Obviously, this precludes its use in real combat for a while. Eventually, MAXFAS’ designers hope to make these components small enough to be carried comfortably in a backpack.

This isn’t the first time the military has shown interest in exoskeleton technologies. A few years ago, DARPA funded a project to develop a suit that could augment the wearer’s strength. Like MAXFAS, this suit is still very much in the beta testing phase of development. Even if they never see combat, however, these innovative designs are teaching military engineers more about what it takes to effectively augment human action with mechanical aids. Whether it’s improving a soldier’s aim or providing them with superhuman strength, robotics has the potential to give rise to a whole new generation of mechanically-augmented warriors.