One table had a helmet, bristling with communications and situational awareness equipment.
Another had what was essentially high-tech long johns with built-in coils designed to keep the wearer cool.
And yet another had gloves containing sensors that, among other things, would allow remote control operation of driverless vehicles.
The products were among 60 being showcased at the University of South Florida’s Research Park of Tampa Bay for a very discriminating potential customer — United States Special Operations Command.
Part high-tech trade show, part speed-dating meet-up, the “collaborative session” at USF was part of Socom’s effort to develop TALOS — the Tactical Assault Light Operator Suit. Dubbed by some the “Iron Man” suit, TALOS is a new form of body armor that is supposed to be lighter, “smarter” and offer greater protection than what commandos currently wear.
For Socom commander Adm. William McRaven, TALOS is a top priority to provide better equipment for troops on the tip of the spear.
For the companies attending the three-day collaboration event, it’s a chance to highlight their technology to a military organization that has its own pot of money to spend on research and development at a time when the Pentagon budget is being slashed.
“The TALOS program is very important,” said Matthew Voss, program manager for an upstate New York company called SIX15 Technologies, which is designing a combat helmet that will have power storage, built-in wireless, biometric sensors, radio frequency detection and heating and cooling among other components.
The USF event is the second put on by Socom to help generate ideas for the new suit, according to Mike Fieldson, Socom’s TALOS project manager.
The first, held in July, was aimed at technology that was further along in the design process. This one, he said, is focused on “less mature” products and capabilities that still need greater degrees of trial and testing.
The initial goal is to produce a rudimentary TALOS prototype by July, Fieldson said.
With weapons, equipment and body armor, commandos are typically carrying 100 pounds of “kit” with them on missions. And the body armor they now wear “offers limited protection around some core areas of the body,” Fieldson said.
The first prototype, while helping to address some of those concerns, “is not designed to be fully integrated,” said Fieldson. But it will provide “additional protection and situational awareness” as well as reduce weight and expand protection.
Socom hopes to have a more fully integrated prototype in the next three to five years, that will combine greater protection, reduced weight, increased comfort and as many technological advances as possible that will give commandos a decided edge in combat.
The initial prototype will cost in the “low-millions” range, said Fieldson, because it will rely heavily on equipment the command has already invested in. Going forward, TALOS will compete for a piece of the annual $30 million in Science and Technology Directorate funds, Fieldson said.
“The admiral’s interest is very high,” said Fieldson. “I think that we’ll compete well. In the end, we will be measured by the maturity of the technology and our ability to integrate the technology across the board.”
Given that McRaven won’t be in command forever — next August will mark his third anniversary at the helm, often a time of transition — Fieldson said that quick success will be key to sustaining the project under the next commander.
“We have been focused on this one-year effort to show the force there is something that’s going to be useful coming out of this thing,” said Fieldson. The TALOS program will be “spiraling out technology as quickly as possible,” said Fieldson. “A win for us might not be a full system in year three or year four. It could be five to 10 different products that were fielded during that time.”
That same philosophy works for many of the companies taking part in the program at USF.
“This goes beyond just TALOS,” said Jack Vice, president and chief technology officer for AnthroTronix, a Silver Springs, Md.-based company that has designed a glove that will allow the wearer to, among other capabilities, have non-verbal communications with others, as well as remotely operate driverless vehicles. “It is very important for us to provide the technology for our nation’s troops.”
Vice has intimate knowledge of how this technology would help.
“I was a sergeant in the Marine Force Recon,” he said, referring to a unit that has special operations capabilities. “I was in Operation Desert Storm. I know this would have come in handy on the battlefield.”
The collaboration event continues through Friday. On Thursday, the exhibition floor will get a whole new set of companies and McRaven will deliver a closed-door message. On Friday, there will be some capabilities demonstrations, including testing the cooling suit that melds technology from Cobham, which designed the cooling system and Oceaneering International Inc., which designed the suit.
The site of the July prototype unveiling is yet to be determined, said Fieldson.
“We have to figure that out,” he said. “We have to find the right venue that will foster the interest of potential partners and find new technologies.”