As militaries worldwide push to incorporate the most advanced technologies into their forces, one of the most visible technologies will affect the most basic military unit of them all: human troops. Infantry forces may soon go into battle wearing military exoskeletons, similar to assistive consumer versions, helping to save energy and give greater strength to the humans wearing them.
In our first look into China and Japan’s exoskeleton rivalry, we looked at competition around exoskeletons designed to solve healthcare and industrial challenges. There, Japan was leading China for several reasons. The most important was arguably Japan’s investment into exoskeletons as a way to keep its aging population in the workforce longer.
Now, let’s look at a different area of competition: military exoskeletons.
Around the world, major military powers are actively developing exoskeletons. The U.S. unveiled an exoskeleton called TALOS in 2015. It stands for “Tactical Assault Light Operator Suit” and could be used by “elite commandos” in future missions.
By 2020, United Instrument Manufacturing Corp., a defense contractor in Russia, plans to producing mind-controlled exoskeletons for Russian soldiers. South Korea’s Hyundai has developed an exoskeleton that it compared to Iron Man.
China leads the way in military exoskeleton development
Here, the tables have turned. China is now leading Japan. When it comes to military exoskeletons, advancements from China have been picking up speed in the past few years.
In 2013, the General Hospital for the Nanjing Military Region developed an exoskeleton that can lift 80-pound objects and, according to state-run media, can reduce pressure on a solider by up to 50%.
A year later in Zuhai, Chinese company EEAE unveiled a more advanced robotic military exoskeleton. The exoskeleton has a 5:1 ratio, which means that if the exoskeleton carries 100 kilograms, it will translate into only 20 kg for the soldier.
The media also said this exoskeleton will go into military production for “front-line use” in the coming years.
During the same 2014 conference, the 202 Institute of China Ordnance Industry Group showcased another exoskeleton.
In 2015, the organization unveiled an upgraded version, which it claimed can lift objects weighing more than 100 lb. It is also equipped with a battery to allow the soldier to walk a maximum distance of 20 kilometers at a speed of 4.5 km/hour. This is on par with the exoskeleton from U.S.-based Lockheed Martin.
Also in 2015, the Institute of Advanced Manufacturing Technology in Changzhou finished work on an exoskeleton that supports people climbing mountains or breaking through structures like walls. One of the potential uses is for the military.
China’s Chinese Academy of Sciences, in partnership with National University of Defense Technology, is reportedly working to develop mind-controlled military exoskeletons.
In 2016, FutureWise unveiled an exoskeleton called NK-01 based on a character from the Iron Man movie series. While the Chinese company’s initial exoskeleton was not market-ready, it did say it wants to be the first company to sell such a robotic suit. Will the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) be the first buyer?
Japan finds strength in consumer offerings
As China moves fast, Japan is slowly making inroads into military exoskeletons, primarily as offshoots of popular consumer models.
After Cyberdyne showcased its exoskeletons at CES back in 2011, the company’s sales division manager reported that the U.S. government had contacted the company to explore buying HAL for military purposes. After numerous updates to the HAL exoskeleton, Japan may consider using the system for its forces as well.
In 2012, Suidobashi Heavy Industry Japan, revealed a “mecha bot” called Kuratas. It is a 13-foot exoskeleton with 30 joints, weapons, and other capabilities. It can be controlled by a person physically in the cockpit or remotely through a phone.
Although this exoskeleton was designed as an “art project,” the company said they plan to build more in the future. Will the Japanese military be a benefactor?
In 2015, the Technical Research and Development Institute, which is the defense research wing of the Japanese military, moved to invest $7.5 million into developing “highly mobile powered suits.” This is the same institute that created a strategy called the “Zero Casualty Battle System,” which seeks to replace soldiers with technology “whenever possible.”
This may plant the seeds for new, more sophisticated exoskeletons for the Japanese military. It also signals a newfound support from the Japanese government for R&D on par with that done in China.
Military exoskeletons a foundation of future militaries
China is actively re-inventing its military, including integrating and utilizing technologies like robotics and artificial intelligence. Japan, on the other hand, is still in the initial phases of moving away from its pacifist military doctrine it adopted after World War II, likely because of China’s aggression in the region.
For a robotics business, this means that if you are selling or exploring military applications for exoskeletons, China is a better bet than Japan. However, foreign robotics companies should have a plan to battle the biggest risk of doing business in China: theft of intellectual property and reverse engineering.
China could also be one of the first countries to use military exoskeletons as it expands its influence in Asia and abroad. For example, might it deploy military exoskeletons to patrol islands in the South China Sea? If so, it brings another variable into the equation for a robotics company that is investing or partnering in China for military exoskeletons. Do you know where your product or part will end up?
In addition, unlike in Japan, the Chinese defense companies are either state-run or are indirectly controlled by the government. These companies have access to resources that their Japanese counterparts may not have. If you are a exploring military exoskeletons in Japan, this is one of your biggest disadvantages — the Japanese government isn’t driving the advancements at the same speed as the Chinese government.
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Two nations, two distinct visions
When it comes to exoskeletons for the elderly and disabled, Japan is leading the race. When it comes to exoskeletons for the military, China is leading the race. The latter’s strong military focus in recent years has included extensive R&D around exoskeleton systems.
Conversely, Japan has looked to the technology to solve its demographic crisis, as the number of retirees rise, leading to concerns about labor shortages and elder care.
Will Japan quietly accede, or will it sell exoskeletons to other countries with aging populations, such as Portugal and Germany? Will China keep military exoskeleton innovations to itself, or will it export them in the same way the U.S. exports jets and missile systems? Either way, it is worth keeping a close eye on the technology, as well as its development in other robotics powers worldwide.
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