With the much-anticipated Captain America: Civil War releasing in theaters in less than two months, things are heating up in the Marvel World. And with a new installment in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, comes a whole lot of all new fan-favorite comic book superhero Iron Man suits for Robert Downey Jr. to strap on. If we could build real-life suits like this, the military and scientific applications of the suits would be endless. But just how feasible exactly is a real-life version of Iron Man’s Suit? Maybe more than you think.
In this article, we’ll focus on the feasibility of the latest seen Iron Man Suit in the Marvel Cinematic Universe films, the Mark 45. Excluding the Vibranium composition of the armour plating, as Vibranium is a fictional metal, how much of the suit can we actually build? That’s counting Flight Systems, Prehensile Technology, Artificial Intelligence, Propulsion Systems, a Heavily Armoured Bulletproof Exoskeleton, Repulsors, and the iconic Unibeam.
First of all, Repulsors, Flight, and Propulsion. The Iron Man suit uses a Repulsor-Technology based propulsion system to fly. Repulsors in the suit’s boots provide primary thrust while repulsors in the hands of the suit allow the user to have a certain degree of control over flight, as well as acting as stabilisers and doubling up as weapons. So is this possible? Currently, the closest thing we have to portable flight systems are prototype jetpacks. However, repulsors may not be completely out of the question. While we do not completely know how they work, we know that they are plasma based. The closest thing we have to this kind of thrust system are ion drives. Ion thrust systems essentially accelerate ions with electricity to produce thrust. We already have basic ion drives; it’s just a matter of making them more portable. Essentially, ion drive based repulsors are theoretically possible, and portable jetpacks could be installed to help with faster velocities. Although we may not be able to hit the speed of suits such as the Mark 40 anytime soon, flying suits could one day be a possibility.
Next up, we have the Prehensility Feature of the suit. The Prehensility System of the suit essentially enables the suit to attach to the user when needed, via a chip implanted in the user. In Iron Man 3, Tony Stark summons the Mark 42 to him telepathically. Although research on this is limited, a system which worked like this could be possible, albeit not being exactly as the films depict. It would work like this: Whenever a designated electrical signal is sent through a group of neurons within the brain (for example, if the user thinks for 10 seconds straight about a particular memory, or says a code-word), an implant within the brain will activate, and send a wireless signal to a receiver within the suit (which is currently a distance away from the user.) Once the suit receives this signal, all repulsors will activate, and the individual parts of the suit will fly to the user, whose location is simultaneously being transmitted to the suit from the user implant. Once a certain distance away from the user, the individual parts will receive information about the position of the user from the user implant, and call upon a certain set of programming protocol dependent on the user’s position to fly onto and assemble themselves to the user. At this point, all other systems will activate, the dust clears, and Iron Man stands in front of the villain, preparing for action.
Third, we have Artificial Intelligence and the Head Mounted Virtual Cybernetic Display. Is the Interface through which Tony Stark controls his suits and sends messages back to J.A.R.V.I.S. (or F.R.I.D.A.Y) possible? Well, yes. In fact, if you own a set of Google Glasses or any type of smartglasses, you have experienced this. Iron Man’s Virtual Cybernetic Display Interface is really just a refined version of this, except that the images are displayed in augmented 3D, in a hologram style fashion, and the images shown are controlled directly by the suit’s central AI, which responds to voice commands by the user. The hologram-style 3D Imaging already exists in a rudimentary form, but the AI is more complicated. The AI we use today is “Weak AI”, but a pseudo-sentient AI such as J.A.R.V.I.S. is more complex. “Strong AI” such as this, however, is not that far fetched. AI as intelligent as humans could rise in an event known as the “Technological Singularity”, which scientists predict to come by around the 2040s. As the actual mechanics of the AI begin to fall into the realm of speculation, we will not concentrate on it here (although you can read more about it in our article about Artificial Intelligence and Speculation here).
Next, Weaponry Systems and the Unibeam. Attaching portable weaponry to a suit is easy – putting in regular military use weapons such as guns into a suit is easy. So is putting in mini “smart” missiles which detect hostile targets with a range of factors such as body heat. When not using conventional weapons to fight, Iron Man uses his repulsor beams to fire. Although we already covered the propulsion mechanics of repulsors in the paragraph on flight, we did not cover the weaponry aspect. When the user sends a nervous-system signal to the repulsors on his hands, they shoot out repulsor rays. We could potentially replicate this effect in real life, using superheated plasma or laser-cutter like device, but we don’t have that kind of technology readily available yet. As for the unibeam, it is simply a superpowered version of a regular repulsor blast. Assuming we can develop such technologies, we could simply make a system which redirect all power to the central chest repulsor and deploy an incredibly powerful blast.
And finally, Iron Man’s Super-Powered Heavily Armored Exoskeleton. This one is the most feasible with current tech in this list so far. Exoskeletons which can augment physical strength and power are not a thing of the future anymore. In fact, military exoskeletons are being developed right now! Current day powered exoskeletons use motors, pneumatics, and hydraulics to provide an amplified level of strength, power, and endurance.
In conclusion, although an Iron Man suit may not be manufactured for quite a while, we have just proved, with real-world present day physics, that most of Iron Man’s systems are possible! If we had access to the right materials, and figured out a way to make them more portable, we could have a real-life Iron Man suit, even if it doesn’t look as sleek as the armors seen in the films and comics. We already have rudimentary exoskeleton suits with basic weapons systems; a replica of the Mark 1 shouldn’t be too hard to build, even in the present day. And who knows; with this type of tech, maybe one day, our security forces will look like this: