A History of Mechs
An excerpt from an article in Issue #421 of Galactic Engineers’ Monthly, a GEC-published popular engineering magazine.
Mechanical Amplification: The History of Exoskeletons, Mecha And More
If you’ve cracked open a comic book or switched on a cartoon recently, you’ve probably seen someone wearing some kind of powered armor – they can be blazingly-fast and powerful human-sized form-fitting suits that fly through the air as easily as a bird, or hulking beasts that stand several stories high and smite their foes with an array of lasers, missiles and more. However, the reality of the situation is much more mundane. Here is an abridged history of mechs and exoskeletons, as well as a chronicle of their modern applications.
Beginnings: The First Powered Exoskeletons
The first examples of powered exoskeletons date back to before the Night of Fire, at least for Solarian models. Contrary to popular perception, these early models were both cumbersome and highly specialized – many had to be plugged into wall-sockets or some other form of external power source, and many of the designs were only used for performing mundane activities in hostile environments, like patching holes in naval vessels whilst out of drydock. Some other noteworthy historical early models include the Vax’Len’Za exoskeleton model produced by the Rachnidian Humanoid-Enhancing Mechatronics Guild, noteworthy for being the first known exoskeleton model with more than two ‘arms’, as well as an early design created on Teceti, independently powered by an onboard diesel reservoir (obviously before the environmental cataclysm). Common factors in all of these designs include their fairly diminutive size (none of them were more than three meters in height, for example) and their decidedly non-combat use. The primary obstacles were simple, yet myriad – the materials used in the construction of these machines were too heavy to be employed in most environments, batteries could not hold a long enough charge for fully autonomous operation (and charging these batteries took days or weeks, far more than was practical), and, most of all, very little necessary application was found for the devices, making them little more than a very expensive novelty.
Innovations: Exoskeletons Become Practical
As sciences advanced in their home civilizations, these problems began to melt away. On Teceti, spurred by a need for efficient electrical transmission and a greatly increased volume of hostile environments due to climate change, advancements in battery technology allowed mechs to operate at full capacity for extended periods of time, with charging taking a matter of minutes without wearing out the batteries in question. Solarian advancements in materials sciences, particularly the discovery of plasteel, allowed the creation of remarkably lightweight designs that greatly increased the effective operation range of exoskeletons. When the wider galactic community came into contact with one another and began sharing these innovations, combined with the new (or old, in some cases) necessities that space travel created – exterior repairs and all-terrain exploration, complete with maneuverability and environmental protection.
Many of the most iconic exoskeleton models emerged as a result of these necessities – the Ripley, Clarke and Odysseus models were created to aid in cargo movement and construction, asteroid mining and advanced in-operation medical care respectively. These exoskeletons - also referred to as mechs – found the most success in the private sector for the above purposes. However, every so often a government would employ Odysseus models in combat situations, with a noteworthy example in the Virtue IX Skirmish, a battle between a Solar Company expeditionary force and a large pirate organization known as the Red Crows wherein a Solarian combat medic piloting an Odysseus used the onboard chemical scanning system to create a high-lethality poison, before employing it to wipe out a small squad of opposing pirates using its syringe gun (designed to rapidly administer specialized medications at ranges beyond the medigun’s operating area). The combat medic in question was later convicted in a Solar Federation court of violating its Geneva Conventions, for usage of chemical weapons in the field. However, outside these limited situations, military usage was still essentially non-existent, aside from non-combat applications such as digging fortifications.
Hostilities: Exoskeletons At War
For approximately 140 years, these designs have been fairly set in stone (the Clarke, Ripley and Odysseyus were all finalized within about fifteen years of each other, although the various specialty models of the Ripley such as the Firefighter came about several years after the fact). Since then, the primary – and most lucrative – field of design for mechs has been combat usage. While prototypes were produced for decades, the first combat capable mech design used in a military conflict was created in 431 FS, with the Durand developed by a small mechatronics company operating out of Luna-Town in the Colonial Minutemen colonies. Initially designed as a riot control exosuit, CMM researchers quickly seized upon the design and secured a special order contract. Designed specifically to operate within BARD parameters in its crusade against the xenofauna hives, the Paladin-class Durand was created to capitalize on the chokepoints often spawned by hive structures and to aid in breach-and-clear tactics. After the Durand was successfully employed in a variety of xenofauna assaults, the company responsible for its design thrived off of the wealth of new contracts, beginning development on modifications and new models before being swiftly purchased by Nanotrasen in 435 FS. Many of the lower-level designers were laid off during the ensuing takeover, who were swiftly hired by Cybersun to make some ground in the newly-blooming combat mechatronics market. Over the next several years, Nanotrasen began to churn out several new models of exosuit, including the highly-mobile Gygax and, much more recently, the Phazon operating off of bluespace technology repurposed from Project Passwall, which spawned the hand teleporter.
Meanwhile, Cybersun began developing in a different direction – while Nanotrasen cornered the market on compact combat exosuits, Cybersun decided to build bigger. The first Cybersun mecha design, known as the Obliterator, was several stories in height, and hosted a vast array of armaments, including a high-energy laser cannon array, a 20mm automatic anti-air weapon, and a missile rack firing anti-armor homing missiles. The design never got off the ground – quite literally, due to problems with the Square-Cube Law. Additionally, even when the design was refined (and heavily stripped down) in order to alleviate the issue, the sheer cost of investment was so high that Cybersun canned the venture in order to cut their losses. While similar models have been attempted periodically, like the supermatter-powered Vaporizer (which had a habit of exploding violently when subjected to any non-trivial damage) or the walking artillery piece Devastator (which was actually reasonably useful, but so expensive that Cybersun only ever built one that was promptly blown to smithereens by a Nanotrasen BSA bombardment during the Corporate Wars), no model has ever reached proper production. To all but the most idealistic or mad scientists (including a recent influx of GEC Eccentrics willing to put up with Cybersun injustices to work on such a project), the dreams of skyscraper-sized mecha dominating battlefields by themselves are just that: dreams – although recent developments in gravity manipulation technology may yet provide a reasonable avenue for these suits to move in an efficient manner without compromising their armor or armaments. Instead, during the Corporate Wars, Cybersun took to extensively modifying advanced Nanotrasen designs to suit the needs of the Syndicate, taking the Gygax, Seraph and Marauder models and refining them (at greater cost per unit) into the Dark Gygax and Mauler models.
Executions: Exoskeletons In Modern Military Doctrine
Contrary to popular belief, mechs are not very suited to replacing traditional armored vehicles or general infantry armor. Mechs are mobile, compact and very well-armed, but they generally require frequent recharging and aren’t nearly as resistant to prolonged fire as tanks and armored cars are. Additionally, while they vastly enhance the firepower of an individual soldier and protect them entirely from outside damage until the exosuit is destroyed, mechs are fairly expensive to produce and maintain, and the inability to reload without either exiting the mech or getting assistance from another infantryman means that mechs can’t be employed in the great numbers necessary to outfit more than a few infantrymen at a time. Generally speaking, mechs are utilized best in quick raids, smash and grab tactics, and in space combat. Thanks to the influence of Nanotrasen’s stock parts system, all mechs are highly modifiable, making them highly adaptable – shotguns for close quarters, missile launchers for crowd control, high-density armor for protracted battle – and easy to repair.
However, for the reasons listed, mechs are generally very difficult to field in numbers, so many organizations utilize or have developed alternatives. As noted, many groups still prefer armored vehicles and standard ground troops over mechs, instead advancing their equipment around either of those subsets rather than using exoskeletons. Particularly prevalent are powered and unpowered hardsuits, providing the same environmental protection and armor while being dramatically easier to maintain and store (at the cost of lacking armaments or proper modification). The latter are much more common than the former. Very recently, however, both Nanotrasen and Syndicate elements have begun development on a new kind of exosuit, designed to combine the compact man-portability of hardsuits with the versatility of mechs – nicknamed MODsuits (Modular Outerwear Devices, or Mechatronic Operation Dermalwear for Nanotrasen and the Syndicate respectively). While these devices are rare and barely out of the prototype stage, they may very well be the next step in mechsuit warfare.
And there you have it: a history of exoskeletons and their modern usage. We hope you enjoyed, and get innovating, engineers.