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Currently, there are two systems for exoskeletons to move with. Soft exoskeletons that utilize Soft Robotics and Hard exoskeletons that use electric motors, pneumatics, levers and hydraulics typically mounted onto a metal frame.

With this in mind, and assuming a sufficient power source has been discovered, what are the advantages and disadvantages of each system for a powered military exoskeleton and why?

Edit: I'd like to first say that I appreciate every answer made thus far, it has really helped. Though looking at the question, I realized that I may not have specified exactly how these exoskeletons would be used in the military. Basically, the main usage of the exoskeleton in the setting I'm creating is something that the average foot solider wears. They're not going to be punching holes in walls, but more minor things like increased stamina, carrying heavy loads, minor assistance in movement and running, etc.

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    $\begingroup$ A lot of the use for soft robotics in manufacturing comes from a safety standpoint, to prevent human injury from impact, for example. I would think that a military exoskeleton wouldn’t want to keep an enemy safe. A “hard” exoskeleton would also most likely be simpler and cheaper to repair or replace parts for, so I would think it’s the clear cut solution as long as the pilot was appropriately padded inside the mechanism. $\endgroup$
    – Mark Price
    Dec 11, 2021 at 7:23
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    $\begingroup$ Lol I thought you were gonna ask about magic systems $\endgroup$
    – Mattna
    Dec 11, 2021 at 8:34
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    $\begingroup$ Its entirly possible any military exoskeleton system will end up being a composite of both 'hard' and 'soft' sub-systems e.g. a 'soft' smart undersuit to handle concusive forces with sensors built into key points to provide bio feedback to the powered joints and muscualture and help with load support and comfort. Then a 'hard' frame to support weight and attach armored plates and other eqipment including batteries to and finally 'soft' powered actuators and joints. Same way as an invertibrate's carapace has both soft/flexible components and 'hard' bits. $\endgroup$
    – Mon
    Dec 11, 2021 at 20:46

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It depends on the Mission, Environment and Opponent

The advantages and disadvantages of military hardware will always depend on it's final purpose, and also the capabilities of your opponent.

At this point in time, it is difficult to imagine a current day example where exosuits would provide a distinctive tactical or strategic advantage over other hardware, for instance tanks, APC's, air or naval power, and even standard infantry. In particular a nuclear or conventional conflict between equal powers.

In an asymmetrical environment small infantry is in the firing line a lot, in particular peace-keeping or occupation duties - so perhaps these conflicts are where you should concentrate the possibilities of exosuits.

If that's the case, you should consider:

  • The expense of suits in comparison to solutions with the same benefit
  • The maintenance and failure-rate in their use
  • The training resources required in their use
  • Their ability to contend with asymmetrical threats (eg - an IED, or close quarter ambushes)

So a list for each of your systems in this context:

Hard Exoskeletons

Advantages:

  • Allows carrying of heavy equipment, and resources over terrain not suitable for wheeled vehicles
  • Replacement parts can be easier to source
  • In-the-field maintenance can perhaps be possible

Disadvantages:

  • No protection against IED's - except if armour is integrated
  • Prone to mechanical failure
  • May not be manouverable in urban warfare
  • Not effective against an armoured tank, or any other conventional opponent

Soft Exoskeletons

Advantages:

  • Allows carrying of heavy equipment, and resources over terrain not suitable for wheeled vehicles
  • Perhaps allows for more comfort for longer missions

Disadvantages:

  • No protection against IED's - except if armour is integrated
  • Prone to mechanical failure
  • New technology - in that expense is high in R&D
  • Difficult to maintain in-the-field without a ready supply of parts
  • Not effective against an armoured tank, or any other conventional opponent

In general - it may make more sense to concentrate on armour to increase survivability from IED's, which may be a use for them. Maintenance is a key issue, and in this case 'hard exoskeletons' win. However overall these are very expensive solutions.

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    $\begingroup$ This answer deserves an award. $\endgroup$
    – Evergreen
    Dec 15, 2021 at 14:12
  • $\begingroup$ Add to the disadvantages of soft exoskeletons a degree of freedom more limited than that of hard ones - I can't imagine a tentacle twisting the way the vise manipulators of a P-5000 motorized loader could $\endgroup$ Dec 21, 2021 at 3:11
  • $\begingroup$ Hehe imagine a 40k space marine style exo on patrol through a city on peacekeeping mission $\endgroup$
    – RancidCrab
    Dec 22, 2021 at 10:37
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Soft exoskeletons are good for casual wear.

They are more comfortable and easy to wear, so they could help soldiers lift heavier weights and move quickly when needed. They are good for routine operations.

Rigid exoskeletons are better for heavy work and injuries.

Getting heavy equipment to kill enemies with is key to wear, so rigid exoskeletons would be good for fast work. They can output much more power since their rigid frames can easily direct force into the frame and the ground. Soft exoskeletons direct most of their force into people's bodies, limiting how much force they can output without shattering skeletons.

They can help with moving heavy weapons, explosives, and having heavy armor. They're harder to wear for routine tasks, but they're good when you want to do stuff that requires a lot of strength.

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The advantage of hard exoskeletons would be that they would probably be simpler to make, and also have higher power output in terms of lifting loads, carrying armour, jumping really high etc.

The advantage of soft exoskeletons would be that they would be much more comfortable to wear, be able to exist in the same environment as unprotected humans, not randomly break stuff by walking into it etc.

This means that hard exoskeletons makes sense as something a soldier might suit up into before going into battle, but a soft exoskeleton is something they can potentially wear all the time even if they aren't immediately expecting a fight. So hard exoskeletons might end up having the role of basically a tank, while soft exoskeletons would be for your infantry, for your garrisons, and for support people, or indeed might work as an undersuit.

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There are two ends of the spectrum. Completely soft robotics necessarily are softer to prevent injury to humans. They enable more freedom of movement. Potentially they could make a human faster or somewhat stronger, but would be limited in armor capabilities. Lockheed is working on stuff like this. This of it more like clothing that augments your strength, but cannot function on its own, or a robot where you are the chassis. You are limited by the strength of the original body put into it. But, they can augment soldiers without being bulky or a detriment to movement. Imagine a ninja wearing one to extend his stamina or increase the strength of a punch to avoid wearing himself out, while also being small and quiet enough to sneak inside a compound.

Completely hard robotic exoskeletons are essentially robots that you control from the inside. Think mechs from various shows, or what Ripley uses in Alien. The robot is not dependent on the strength of the wearer except to control the force. These are super restrictive in movement, requiring hard or limited joints to increase strength. However, you can essentially be a walking tank, able to survive in any environment and keep whatever systems you want on board. Radar and life support? Sure! Missile Defenses and countermeasures? Definitely. They are like more mobile tanks, but less durable that the obviously armored vehicle.

A good balance in the middle is the exosuit in Edge of Tomorrow. The suit is limited function hard robotics designed to armor a human, but it is built around a human skeleton.

Typically the hard or softness of an exoskeleton is gping to depend on what you want it to do and how far outside of human strength you want the wearer to be able to go. More strength-> harder skeleton unless you want to add some handwavium actuators.

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Combined robotics.

The soft robotics are easier to wear and have less limitations on mobility of the wearer (and they can use an exoskeleton to work without the need for the human as support). Hard robotics are more durable and can (likely) sustain higher loads.

You combine both robotics to minimize mobility restriction and still benefit from the (likely) higher loads of hard robotics. Most likely the inner layers of the exoskeleton will mostly be soft robotics, then a layer of combined soft and hard robotics. The combined layer likely has most of the hard and soft robotics attached to one another, with the soft robotics being able to anchor into place when certain power thresholds are reached after which the hard robotics take over fully. That means at that point mobility is limited until you dont need that much power anymore but that seems like a good trade-off. Then another layer of soft robotics for handling equipment outside of the exosuit.

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