Not ready for prime time…
Anybody who’s been here a while knows I’m a big fan of Stark Industries products, and I’ve been excited about this product since the first buzz for it hit Popular Mechanics a couple of years ago. We’ve been hearing that the future belongs to exoskeletons for a long time, and it seemed to me that if anybody was ever going to make it a working reality, it’d be the alpha bull engineers at SI.
Well… I’ve had the chance to try out the prototype, and it pains me to say it, but I must be honest: I found it disappointing.
Billed as a “personal combat and safety vehicle” – because far be it from any marketing department to just say “battlesuit” – the newly dubbed Iron Man™ Mark I stands about seven feet tall with a six-foot-tall pilot (and so a bit shorter with my non-soldierly frame wedged into it), and can be adjusted to fit operators ranging in height from 5’7″ to 6’3″, according to the documentation. It’s armored with a proprietary metallic compound called (unsurprisingly) Starkite™ and carries a range of weapons intended, so they say, to give the individual combatant a decisive firepower advantage against conventional infantry. It’s also got a limited-range rocket-boosted flight system. (More about that in a bit.) They tell me it weighs 475 pounds with a full load of munitions (pilot’s weight not included).
Well, I’ll say this for the Mark I: it’s certainly imposing. With its hulking proportions and heavy armor, bristling with weapons, everything about its visual appearance at first glance says “bad news”. But then you look a little more closely… and that carefully crafted first impression starts to fall apart a little. The second thing you notice about the Mark I is how… unfinished it looks.
I mean, granted, it’s an engineering prototype, but this is Stark Industries we’re talking about. Even their technology proof-of-concept examples usually look as slick as other manufacturers’ finished products. This thing is just… junky-looking. There are visible welds, panels that don’t match, metal defects – hell, the helmet has a big ol’ dent in it. The cladding on the chest plate isn’t even symmetrical. The whole thing looks like it was assembled out of scrap metal and old weapons parts by a couple of desperate guys in a cave somewhere.
What’s worse, you can see wires and tubing that don’t seem to have been secured all that well peeking through gaps in the armor, and a closer inspection reveals that there are an awful lot of those. The front of the main body is very heavily armored, as are the long parts of the limbs, but very little attention seems to have been paid to protecting the joints, to say nothing of some of the vital systems. The drive mechanisms for the legs are almost entirely exposed, which would seem to me to be a pretty major problem in a mobile protective system. So is the computer system, which hangs off the back like those mysterious giant Sega Saturns on the backs of the robots in Virtual-On. The helmet has two giant, completely empty eyeholes that just invite an enemy sharpshooter to put a round into them, which would seriously inconvenience anybody whose head happened to be in there.
The View from Inside
The clunkiness doesn’t end with the Mark I’s appearance, either. Prepping it for action is a ridiculously involved process that requires the kind of crew normally associated with Formula I race cars. Medieval knights had less trouble (and needed less help, and took less time) putting on their armor than a man trying to get ready for a spin in the Mark I faces. What’s more, once they were in, they were probably more comfortable. I certainly wasn’t. All those rough edges and dubious quality decisions that are so obvious from the outside? They’re even more obvious from the inside. Wearing the Iron Man prototype feels a little like being dipped in hot tar and then having random machine parts stuck all over you while it’s still tacky.
The really amazing thing in this day and age, though, is that there’s no crew environment system whatsoever. Iron Man isn’t air conditioned; it isn’t even ventilated apart from those two giant eyeholes and a little ventilation slot at around mouth level. It has no NBC protection capability whatsoever. It’s not like there’s room behind that peforated face plate to wear a gas mask. There’s no place for a man to take a pee in there, either, which could rapidly become an emergency situation in the field, since it takes the better part of half an hour for the pit crew to get you out of the thing once you’re bolted into it. (I was very strongly cautioned not to pull an Al Shepard in there, as there are important electric supply cables involved in the leg locomotion system in that neighborhood – a comforting thought.)
Still, I have to admit, despite its many and mounting shortcomings, there’s a certain sense of invincibility involved once the suit is fully assembled and powered on. Actually operating it once it’s all ready to go isn’t difficult. Despite the suit’s greaet weight, once powered it carries its own bulk, so the operator doesn’t feel like he’s lugging 500 pounds of junk around on his back. The servo control system follows the operator’s movements, so there’s a slight delay that takes a little getting use to, but that’s quickly mastered, and from there on it’s smooth sailing. The servos have a tremendous feeling of power. You get the impression almost immediately that there’s not much – certainly no ordinary man-made structure – that can stand in your way, and the presence of so much heavy armor creates a feeling of invulnerability.
Unfortunately, this feeling is almost entirely illusory. In reality, you have more chinks in your armor wearing this thing than Tony Stark’s had supermodels, and what’s more, they’re mostly in places where it would be particularly awkward to get shot – the armpit, for instance, or the crotch, or (as previously mentioned) the eye. And though you don’t feel the suit’s weight, the suit sure does. Operating it is smooth and not all that difficult, but what it is is slow. It’s a little like working in about 200 feet of water wearing an old-timey Mark V hardhat diving rig (except the visibility is better in a Mark V). At its full walking (or, more accurately, lumbering) speed, a man on a bicycle could easily outrun Iron Man. This is not exactly a good thing when you’re such a big, shiny, obvious target.
That said, you do have quite a bit of power at your disposal, if you only get a chance to use it – but it’s tricky to find ways of doing that. You won’t be lifting much more than a normal man, for instance, because the suit has no power grippers. You can punch through a cinder block wall, thanks to a couple of cunningly designed overhangs on the forearms that protect the operator’s hands, but apart from that, you’re basically just wearing a pair of heavy leather welding gloves. An unencumbered human would have to really not be paying attention to get punched by someone wearing Iron Man, though. Ditto for the suit’s kicking power – impressive, but only of use against stationary targets. (Still, I have to admit it’s great fun to be able to kick a hole in the side of an APC. You just have to be careful not to snag any of the various poorly fitted sticky-out bits on the lower legs.)
Well, okay, I hear you say, but the payoff must be in the suit’s incredible weapons load, right? Well… no, not really, because it’s not particularly well-armed. What’s more, the weapons it has seem like rather odd choices to me. It has a pair of flamethrowers – a strange decision in a suit that has no environmental sealing or air conditioning, I would think – and a small missile launcher that, on closer inspection, is nothing more than a LAAW cobbled into a forearm mounting. And… that’s it. No more precise antipersonnel weapons, no sophisticated defense system, nothing.
But then, it can’t really have anything more precise than that, because it doesn’t have anything to control a precision weapon with. That helmet I was talking about earlier? There’s nothing in it but the pilot’s head. The computer on the back runs the movement control system, and once it’s operational there’s no way for the suit’s operators to interface with it at all. It’s booted up by somebody else with a laptop, who then uncables and takes it away. There’s no way for the operator to check the suit’s status, no targeting system of any kind… nothing. There are no electronics or sensors whatsoever. Not even the most rudimentary of instruments for the flight system.
Which brings us to the flight system. Calling it a flight system is really a considerable linguistic indulgence. It’s a launch system, certainly – the two rocket boosters built into the suit’s legs generate a combined total of about 2,500 pounds of thrust, more than sufficient to make the machine airborne. However, the suit’s design pays not even faint lip service to the idea of getting down again in anything like a controlled manner. You just sort of assume a ballistic trajectory, and once the rocket goes up, who cares where it comes down? That is apparently not Mr. Stark’s department. My company minder advised me that if I wanted to try that system out, I should make sure I was facing the ocean first, and let him know in advance so he could have a rescue swimmer in the water. I passed.
Okay, I have to admit, there’s a lot of potential in the Iron Man prototype. Its basic engineering is impressive and its power source is nothing short of revolutionary. But right now that’s all it is – potential. The execution is just so poor that anything potentially cool about the design is lost in the awfulness of it all. In a Stark Industries product, this kind of sloppiness and crudity is shocking.
To his credit, Tony Stark seems to realize that. He insisted several times, while his pit crew was prying me out of the thing at the end of the demonstration, that he’s working on a much-improved version and that he won’t go to production until he’s sure he’s got it right.
He’s got a lot of work to do.
Yeah, uh, well… back here in the real world, I enjoyed Iron Man immensely, and I thought this sorta-Top Gear-esque review of Mr. Boiler might amuse. If you like gizmos – and what are you doing here if you don’t? – you will probably enjoy this movie.
Benjamin D. Hutchins is an author, public relations writer, and semiprofessional muser upon the random. His other nonfiction writings can be found here and here.