A Real Superhero Suit?
Lockheed Martin Experts Weigh In

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With the speed of a hypersonic aircraft, rocket power of a launch vehicle, strength of an armored truck and data-processing power of a supercomputer, today’s superheroes have captured the imagination of millions of fans from every corner of the globe.

While there may be no greater fantasy than superhuman powers and out-of-this world technology, if you think the idea of creating a real superhero suit is pure science fiction, think again.

Every day, Lockheed Martin scientists are making new discoveries in fields like nanotechnology, kinetics, lightweight materials and autonomy – all essential powers for the superhero of tomorrow. 

So, we asked our technologists: Is a real superhero suit science fact or science fiction? 

“360-degree vision capability for a superhero is certainly possible”

And in fact, it is already a reality on the F-35. As F-35 pilots, we see imagery collected from six different cameras embedded all around the aircraft, fed into one seamless picture of landscape projected in the glass of our helmet. This allows us to quite literally look all around and effectively "see through" the skin of the airplane – as if the jet structure is not even there. While a superhero isn't encased in the shell of an aircraft, the individual could absolutely benefit from the additional capabilities of an F-35-like vision system. For example, with this system, you have the ability to distinguish between finite hot and cold differences in the infrared color spectrum. Just like we do in the F-35, you could soar through the night sky with the same quality of vision you have in broad daylight.

Bottom Line:
If the level of situational awareness in an F-35 helmet is any indication of the potential and fascinating capability of a superhero helmet-mounted display…well, let's just say there’s a reason why the Avengers always win!

“To power a superhero suit, we must discover something new”

Propelling a human at the same Mach number as jet fighters requires thousands of pounds of thrust. If we were to use a jet engine, the volume and weight of fuel would be untenable. Modern-day jet packs can only fly for a few minutes and could never exhibit the speed and acceleration needed. Today, we don’t have technology that is remotely close to providing the power. A cause for optimism is that we don’t fully understand the universe, with 96 percent of it made up of what we call dark energy and matter. People are always driven to invent something new, so perhaps we will be able to tap into an unknown aspect of physics in the future. Researchers at Eagleworks lab at NASA have developed a theory showing it might be possible to warp space-time, providing faster-than-light travel. A professor at the University of California, Merced is even working on a transducer between electromagnetics and gravity.

Bottom Line:
It will take a physics breakthrough to power a superhero suit. But who knows, we may be working on something right now that makes it possible tomorrow.

“We imagine a superhero suit to be nearly weightless with unlimited power”

In reality, if you encase the human body in a 500-pound suit of armor, taking a step forward would be challenging, much less levitating above the ground and flying through the air! Power and weight are challenges we as human beings encounter every day. Imagine skilled workers in industrial settings who are lifting heavy, hand-operated power tools for hours on end. By using the principles of biomechanics, we can transfer the weight of those tools to a mechanical arm, then to the lower-body exoskeleton, where the weight is transferred to the ground. Already today, exoskeletons like FORTIS™ make it feel as though workers using heavy tools are operating in an almost weightless environment. The user remains mobile and agile because the joints of the exoskeleton move in concert with the human body at the hips, knees and ankles. Industrial workers not only have superhuman strength and endurance but also a reduced risk of musculoskeletal injury.

Bottom Line:
We’re only just beginning to push the limits of exoskeleton technology, but it’s possible to imagine a world where bionic systems will allow you to feel weightless – even in a suit of armor.

“It’s all about the human-robot team. Today’s technologies are just the beginning”

I tend to think of Iron Man as a collaboration between the suit, the artificial intelligence and the individual—together they can accomplish things that divided would be impossible. You can see how forms of artificial intelligence like J.A.R.V.I.S (Just A Rather Very Intelligent System) are designed to help humans do their jobs better through the complementary pairing of what humans and machines are good at. A human’s brain is well suited to understand the relevance of its environment and make critical decisions based on incomplete information. However, the human brain is not as well adapted to performing tasks dissimilar to how it evolved, such as precisely flying a superhero suit or providing measurements of the surrounding world. Even so, many works of science fiction depict artificial intelligence as far more advanced than what might be possible for a very long time. Think about what we’ll see during DARPA’s Robotics Challenge Finals—that’s the state of the art today.

Bottom Line:
We are designing systems that use robotic and autonomous technologies to help humans do their jobs better—it’s about the human-machine team. And that’s opening the door to real, helpful future capabilities.

“Super-fast, super-stealthy superhero suits could be in our future”

Superhero suits made of metal are neat, but imagine a suit that renders its superhero invisible. It’s really a matter of patterns and light. Materials that are patterned in a certain way with conducting and insulating elements can direct electromagnetic radiation around an object. There are three big challenges to making this kind of material for visible wavelengths. The first challenge is the pattern size. Microscale patterns can direct electromagnetic radiation in radio frequency wavelengths. The same concept could be applied to visible wavelengths if the patterns could be fabricated at the nanoscale. The second challenge is controlling light in three dimensions. Two-dimensional patterning is doable, but three-dimensional patterning is currently very difficult. The last challenge is designing a pattern for multiple wavelengths. Existing patterns direct light of a single color. Invisibility would require directing light across the visible spectrum. Patterns with these properties have been simulated and are physically possible—in fact, the technology to fabricate those three-dimensional nanoscale patterns is under development.

Bottom Line:
Beyond iron suits, the material to make a suit invisible doesn’t exist yet, but it is physically possible. Who knows, maybe even I could be an invisible superhero in this lifetime!