Grappling hooks attached to siphon electricity from low-hanging power lines. Computers mounted onto a commando's chest plate. Communications gadgets small enough to fit into gear pouches worn around the waist. The Air Force is actually preparing its special operators to act (and outfit themselves) more like the Batman.
Since 2004, the Air Force has worked to reduce the physical load of gear carried by its Special Operations Forces — the superheroes who seize hostile airfields and rescue captured troops behind enemy lines. Those airmen are often weighed down on these missions, lugging as much as 160 pounds worth of stuff.
Since much of the bulk comes from their communications gear, the Air Force opted to cut out heavy batteries to power it, fueling the gear through methanol fuel cells that get lighter as the charge dies. That allows elite airmen to essentially wear their gear like a scaffold, a concept the Air Force calls a "Human Chassis."
Except a human chassis isn't a cool enough name.* So the program, pursued at Ohio's Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, bears a moniker that strikes fear into the heart of villains everywhere. It's the Battlefield Air Targeting Man-Aided kNowledge (just go with it). Yes: the BATMAN.
Adam Hadhazy of Tech News Daily has a great piece reporting on the program from inside Wright-Pat's, uh, Batcave. He finds that the BATMAN program rolls with its character concept with astonishing consistency. There may not be a rubber-nipple-equipped Batsuit, nor a trusty butler.
In fact, the prototype Air Force outfit used to test out the gear is more garage nightmare than Hollywood blockbuster. But BATMAN does come equipped with a Bat Hook: a grappling hook that special operators can throw onto power lines in order to charge up their battery-powered communications equipment.
According to a program engineer, the Bat Hook came about after a special operator observed that it would be "really cool" to design "'Something like what Batman has on his belt that he can take out and wing it up to a power line and get power,'" he tells Hadhazy. Bob Kane could not have said it better.
Then there's the on-board chest computer, a laptop that relays logistical information and fits right into the chest plate. One imagines the next-gen BATMAN will use a tablet instead, as the program is already at work on a 2.0 version.
Hadhazy reports that one of the next projects for the design team is to go wireless, replacing cumbersome cables connecting the commo gizmos to airmen's rucksacks with secure frequencies. The wires are Adam West; secure wi-fi is Christian Bale.
Of course, if fearsome communications equipment is the direction in which the Air Force is trending, ironclad comic-book history suggests that the real next step is for the BATMAN program to invent the all-seeing Brother-Eye, an artificial intelligence mounted in a satellite orbiting earth. (Only to watch it spiral out of control, sure, but we can cross that bridge when we come to it.) Until then, we'll settle for elite airmen embracing their superhero status.