OTTAWA -- Iron Man Canuck may be appearing soon at a theatre near you.
The Defence Department posted a contract tender Monday asking companies for proposals for high-tech body suits that could help Canadian soldiers carry bigger loads into battle.
"One of the key challenges faced by soldiers today is the large weight they must carry," says the notice.
Soldiers have been beasts of burden since the early days of the Roman legions, when the legionaries fighting under Gaius Marius laughingly called themselves Marius's mules.
Soldiers in the field today regularly tote loads of 45 kilograms, including water, rations and ammunition.
"A soldier carrying a large pack on their back will be limited in terms of speed and endurance. . . . Exoskeletons and other mobility devices may offer alternative solutions to the important problem of reducing load burden for the soldier of tomorrow," the posting added.
The contract, worth up to $204,000, is to be awarded in June and could include creation of a prototype and demonstration suit. The work is set to run until Jan. 31, 2011.
A spokeswoman for the military said the Dartmouth, N.S., scientific group ordering the research would not comment until after a contract has been awarded.
"They're . . . in the early stage (and) they don't really have any details that would be of any value to share," said Bobbi Jo Bradley. "They're not sure which direction it will take."
Exoskeletons and similar body-armour have been the stuff of science fiction for decades and have been under study by the U.S. military since at least the 1960s.
But in early 2001, the U.S. Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency began concentrated work on producing a working version, earmarking US $50 million for the project.
The Pentagon agency eventually awarded a contract to Sarcos, a Salt Lake City, Utah, company now owned by Raytheon, that produced a test version this year - not unlike the Iron Man suit of the blockbuster film that opened last weekend. Known as the XOS Exoskeleton, it uses a single engine and hydraulics to assist movement.
A spokesperson for Sarcos was not immediately available for comment. But an official who's in charge of the military program said a prototype worked well.
"I sort of felt like The Hulk and I'm a skinny guy," John Main told a media outlet last fall. "I wore a 100-pound weight on my back and it felt like I was carrying nothing like that amount."
The Canadian military has struggled for years to find a balance between the high-tech gear that's rapidly becoming available and the ability of its soldiers to actually carry the equipment in the field.
In recent years, for example, National Defence has ordered research on the neck strain caused by helmets weighed down with night-vision goggles.
Military researchers have set aside as much as $310 million for a so-called "integrated soldier system" that would, for example, connect radios, digital maps,, night-vision goggles and range-finding laser binoculars into a single system.