How Close Are We To A Real Iron Man Suit?
As advancements in robotics progress at an ever-increasing rate, Tony Stark's real life Iron Man Suit technology seems like a possibility.Technology
Movies featuring Tony Stark may have dominated the box office for years, but will his Iron Man armor ever dominate the battlefield? As advancements in robotics progress at an ever-increasing rate, it seems like a possibility.
So, how close are we to producing a real life Iron Man suit? Is it scientifically possible? How practical would a power suit like Iron Man's be? Let’s investigate!
Creating human-like automatons captured the imagination of inventors as far back as 1868 with patents filed for the “steam man.” It was a human-shaped, steam-powered machine designed to pull carts.
The steam man is a far cry from an Iron Man suit. But, Tony Stark—with an estimated net worth of 12.4 billion dollars—has more resources and knowledge than the steam man’s inventor could ever dream about.
Fast forward to modern times, and military engineers like Lockheed Martin have started to create rudimentary versions of Iron Man’s suit called exoskeletons. Lockheed Martin joined forces with the US military to test out a lower body armor-less exoskeleton called the ONYX that helps troops walk farther by reducing the loads on their backs.
The ONYX still has to undergo some rigorous testing, but preliminary results show that the device effectively reduces the strain on troops. Exoskeletons aren’t only used by the military, either. The ReWalk is an exoskeleton that enables paraplegics to walk, like the one James Rhodes uses at the end of Captain America: Civil War.
But unless you also have Tony Stark as your friend, you won’t see many of these out and about. At $85,000 per unit, many individuals can’t afford it. ReWalk units are also much slower and clunkier than the ONYX, making it less than ideal Iron Man material. These developments are all really cool, but they aren’t yet in the same league as an iron man suit.
The truth is, it's not a real Iron Man suit unless it can fly. So, what technology do we currently have available that will allow us to blow holes through the roof instead of walking out the exits like a normal person?
One of the first endeavors in personal flight devices was the Bell Rocket Belt. It was the earliest jetpack, pioneered back in the 1960s.
Its top speed clocked in at 34 miles per hour, which it could sustain for 20 seconds. A fairly reasonable result for the first attempt! But jetpack flight times have barely pushed past 30 seconds in the following decades, partly because flight times are limited by the amount of fuel you carry.
The more fuel you carry, the heavier the jetpack, meaning the more fuel you need, which means there’s a limit.
Yet advancements in fuel and engine engineering continue to push this limit to the extreme. JetPack Aviation have a jetpack they claim is capable of flying for ten minutes.
According to them, this jetpack can reach speeds of up to 200 miles per hour, which approaches Iron Man territory. They hope that with more efficient turbofan engines, flight times could be as long as 20 minutes.
But what if you could save fuel by jumping from someplace really high instead of taking off from the ground? Enter, Yves Rossy: the Jetman. He developed a personal flying device that flies like Iron Man but uses jet engines and carbon-fiber wings.
While bypassing vertical takeoffs, which are fuel exhaustive, Rossy avoids carrying excess fuel. Furthermore, having a wing that produces lift makes sure thrust is employed for forward momentum rather than simply maintaining his altitude.
Leaving behind an extra few gallons makes his suit lighter and more maneuverable. Less fuel actually makes it easier for him to fly. Overall, fuel is one of the main limitations with developing a real Iron Man suit.
Watch Jetman Yves Rossy exploring the skies of Dubai and marking a new milestone in the chapter of human flight:
In the movies, Tony Stark invents a miniature source of clean energy, dubbed the Arc Reactor. It’s a palm-sized fusion reactor that powers every part of his suit.
It does this by smashing together lighter atoms to form heavier atoms, creating heat and light, mirroring what happens in our sun.
While engineers can create nuclear fusion reactions, we haven’t yet created a reactor that can make more energy than it consumes. Over 34 countries have pooled together resources to research this problem, creating ITER.
It’s the largest scale fusion experiment on the planet that’s been in the works for decades. It turns on in 2025, and the calculations suggest it will meet or exceed its goal. However, it’s not small enough for an iron man suit. In fact, it's the size of a hotel, which is far from portable.
Luckily, Lockheed Martin has been developing a compact fusion reactor which is roughly the size of a large truck.
They claim its energy output would be able to power up a few city blocks. However, a functional prototype is about a decade away, and it is still not small enough to fit into a small suit. Therefore, a suitable power source remains a concern.
But size isn’t the only issue. With nuclear fusion out of the running as a power source, let's break down the viability of other fuel sources.
The power level of Iron Man's suit is between 1 and 16 million horsepower – that’s the equivalent power output of 2000 to 35,000 corvettes. Imagine that amount of energy coming out of something 3 inches across. The wasted energy as heat would burn a hole straight through the user!
Overheating would be a huge issue. And as of yet, we’ve yet to find or create a material capable of staying as impact-resistant as Iron Man’s suit at extremely high temperatures.
Iron Man Drone
We might not be able to wear an Iron Man suit. But, that doesn’t mean we can’t produce something similar. In Iron Man 3, Tony invented an Iron Man suit that could be operated by a remote control.
This drone-like design is surprisingly feasible. Removing the human pilot from the suit would decrease the amount of weight, and hence power consumption the suit needs to carry
And with no pilot inside, you wouldn't have to worry about it overheating or being shot out of the sky in battle. Obviously, we all still really want to fly for real. But with advanced simulators and computer/brain interfaces, you’d think you’re really soaring through the skies, while controlling something that does.
Scientists have already started to pioneer technology like this. In 2016, human test subjects could control robotic prosthetic hands using mental commands.
Even more impressively, some could experience the sense of touch with 100% accuracy through the electronic sensors of the prosthetics. Of course, this technology is still in its infancy, but in a few decades, who knows where this technology could lead? But let’s focus on the present.
Can we create a viable alternative to the Iron Man armor now, that functions like the Iron Man suit, with flight and firepower included?
The answer is yes – but it won’t be anywhere as compact as the iron man suit. We have pieces of it that just need a few decades-worth of assembling.
First up is the power source. Currently, jet engines powered by fuel sources like hydrogen peroxide would create enough energy and thrust to enable flight at low temperatures. But they would need to be used in addition to high-capacity batteries for the rest of the suit, like those that power Teslas.
Lithium-ion batteries and their high-capacity counterparts, lithium-sulfur batteries are a possible alternative. Although, if lithium batteries become seriously damaged, there’s a chance that the battery could explode. Not a good choice for a suit of armor.
However, researchers at Tufts University have developed a lightweight, low-cost battery that can even function after parts of the plastic-like material have been shredded. Watch below:
That sounds like something straight from the comics! And it would be perfect to power an armored suit that’s about to take some punishment.
The armor must be made of something durable enough to take a swing or two from another mech. But despite its name, the “Iron” Man suit probably wouldn’t be made of a large amount of iron. Iron is a heavy element, and each iron atom adds weight to the suit.
Lightweight alloys like Nitinol —a titanium-nickel alloy—have been explored as potential alloys for armor since the 1990s. The problem is that a material that’s too hard will pass non-survivable impacts onto the human in the suit, so it must be ductile enough to allow the human to bear large shock loads.
To solve this, it would be necessary to have an extremely soft material as an inner-lining behind the titanium body panels. For this, we could use Sorbothane, which is soft enough to prevent an egg from breaking after being dropped from a highrise building.
As for propulsion, we could use really efficient jet engines. Look no further than the Jet Suit from Gravity Industries.
The design clearly borrows inspiration from the Iron Man suit, incorporating arm-mounted thrusters in tandem with a more traditionally-styled jetpack. This is as close as it gets to Iron Man-like flight. Watch a demonstration below:
However, it's quite tricky to fly, so using a jetpack like the one developed by jetpack aviation might be safer and easier to control.
Heads Up Display (HUD)
Speaking of control, you’ll need a heads up display. The displays inside Tony’s helmet are state-of-the-art, and we already have technology like that. The previously mentioned Jet Suit comes with a heads-up display (or HUD) in every unit to track fuel and flight time.
Now, firepower for when you need to blast some drones out of the sky. You could always go for more traditional firearms like War Machine. But the closest we have to Stark’s hand-mounted blasts is a prototype laser turret designed by the US Air Force to shoot down missiles and drones.
Right now, these laser systems are too big to carry on a suit, but maybe one day, they’ll look just like the ones Iron Man has.
Flying AMP Suit
Regarding design, it would be interesting to get an awesome cosplay designer to mash their creativity together with a genius engineer. This collaboration could develop something like the flying version of the AMP suit from the movie Avatar.
The result would be slightly larger than this amazing hulkbuster cosplay armor created by Dre Shinwho.
To fit all the weaponry and jet engines inside, the human could be located in the center. In fact, we are already experimenting with this idea. The Method 2 is the world’s first manned, bipedal robot. The technology mimics the movements of the driver down to their fingers.
Not surprisingly, the robot’s creator, Yang Jin-Ho, is a real-life Tony Stark. He spent $200 million of his own money to finance the research to build Method 2, which costs roughly $8.3 million. But just like Stark’s suit, Method 2’s limitation is its power source. It uses a battery with just a three-hour capacity.
However, just imagine what could be created if we spent billions, instead of millions of dollars on a project like this. Tony Stark was onto something, because modern warfare is trending towards hybrids and machines.
Even though Stark may be a fictional person in the Marvel cinematic universe, his ideas have a ring of truth to them. And we get to live in an era where his ideas slowly become reality.