From an Allentown kitchen, the foot soldier of the future is envisioned as part GI, part machine

TALOS: ROBO-INFANTRYMAN

June 01, 1993|By Knight-Ridder News Service

ALLENTOWN, Pa. -- Someday, perhaps, during the opening hours of faraway combat, enemy soldiers may confront the awful specter of a new American warrior.

Before them would be a fearsome 6-foot, 7-inch robotic figure, swathed in titanium, with heavy-duty infantry weapons mounted beside its helmet, its malignant silence broken only by the hiss of escaping carbon dioxide gas.

It would be TALOS -- named for the bronze, stone-hurling sentry of Greek mythology -- and inside, theoretically, amid microclimate control, periscopic/telescopic optics, laser ranger and a voice-command firing mechanism would be the modern, practically invincible GI.

And should TALOS one day prevail on the battlefield, it may be recalled how its simple nativity occurred around the kitchen table of a small, bird-filled, third-floor apartment in Allentown at the hands of a bus driver's son and his wife.

How, unlike the mythical Talos' creator -- the Olympian blacksmith Hephaestus, who made arms for the gods -- Ken and Joyce Boldt come from more earthly stock: he a wiry, bespectacled reader of technical manuals; she a shy writer of forthright letters to the government.

It might be remembered, too, how this 21st-century robo-grunt was born of a business named for a cranky dead parakeet; how, in the beginning, the Boldts were both management and labor, and how for a long time most people politely told them to take their wild contraption and get lost.

For there, on one wall of 405-J in their apartment complex here, near the potted weeping fig and the portrait of visionary thinker Leonardo da Vinci, is where TALOS stands now.

Literally.

Actually, so far, there's not much of him being supported by the two shelf brackets below da Vinci's bearded visage, just a lower skeleton of hips, legs and feet made up of double-acting pistons, transistor arrays, solenoid valves, plastic gears and cold rolled steel.

A big problem has been money. The Boldts have spent about $20,000. But the $97 million they have told the Pentagon is needed for the manufacture of a dozen TALOS devices seems breathtaking.

TALOS, which is pronounced TAY-lahs, stands for Tactical Advanced Line Operations System.

The system was designed in the late 1980s as a possible walking aid to paraplegics. Mr. Boldt said he envisioned a person wearing the system, sort of like leg braces. Once activated, it would operate like robotic, artificial limbs.

It was Mrs. Boldt, thinking about potential customers, who first wondered about a military application. "Let's now make this the best military system we can," she told her husband. "Sure," he said. "Great idea." Together they set to work.

In 1990, they formed a two-person corporation and named it Schuger, after a now deceased, somewhat irritable parakeet. They gave each other "assignments," Mr. Boldt said. "We get those hashed out pretty quick." Mrs. Boldt became the CEO and quality control manager, and handled aesthetics, overview and "dealing with outside parties." Mr. Boldt became the project director and chief engineer.

What they came up with was a bulletproof, exo-skeletal body suit that would weigh 850 pounds, but would have a carbon dioxide-fueled motor for "user motion replication."

What that means is that when the "on-board operator" moved a leg, the motor would automatically move the suit with it.

The soldier would be sealed inside, air-cooled and protected by quarter-inch-thick titanium, and patches of tungsten here and there. The soldier would see through a periscope placed inside the helmet and would have a full range of vision through thick, tinted glass. On a turret around the helmet could be an array of machine guns, grenade launchers or anti-tank weapons.

Farfetched as it sounds, the Boldts said, no one has yet called them crazy; the idea, in fact, seems reminiscent of the chemical weapons suits of the Persian Gulf War. And while there has so far been general rejection or deflection of the Boldts' overtures to the government, they did get an intriguing letter from the Army a few years ago.

While TALOS was currently "beyond the scope," a colonel wrote, such a system "is in our plans for future system concepts, and we expect to pursue such a system as operational needs arise and the technology matures."

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