MechWarrior was a popular game back in the Stone Age.

We’re inching our way toward it now.

Of the many risks dismounted Soldiers face in the field, one of the most common is injury from carrying their gear—often topping 100 pounds—for extended periods over rough terrain. Heavy loads increase the likelihood of musculoskeletal injury and also exacerbate fatigue, which contributes to both acute and chronic injury and impedes Soldiers’ physical and cognitive abilities to perform mission-oriented tasks. To help address these challenges, DARPA seeks performers for the last phase of its Warrior Web program.

Warrior Web aims to develop a soft, lightweight undersuit that would help reduce injuries and fatigue and improve Soldiers’ ability to efficiently perform their missions. The garment would protect injury-prone areas and promote efficient and safe movement over a wide range of activities (walking, running, jumping, crawling, etc.). Comfortable, durable and washable, the garment would not interfere with body armor or other standard clothing and gear. DARPA seeks to create a working prototype that significantly boosts endurance, carrying capacity and overall Soldier effectiveness—all while using no more than 100 watts of power.

“Many of the individual technologies currently under development show real promise to reduce injury and fatigue and improve endurance,” said LTC Joseph Hitt, DARPA program manager for Warrior Web. “Now we’re aiming to combine them—and hopefully some new ones, too—into a single system that nearly every Soldier could wear and would provide decisive benefits under real-world conditions.”

The decreased mobility, shortened endurance, and much higher risk of injury imposed by the extraordinary loads today’s infantry must carry have made them far less effective, in the close fight than in the past. This is, of course, offset to some extent by the much greater survivability provided by the modern body armor, and by increases in their sensors and targeting capability.

The key hurdle for any such exoskeleton system is power. How to power the system without the battery or other source becoming an even greater burden, either directly on the soldier or simply on the logistical pipeline, has been the biggest challenge.

I think we’re a long, long way from seeing a practical system fielded throughout the force, but the progress made in the last decade is pretty impressive, for relatively modest sums of money.