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"An entire platoon wearing wearable robots"

Chip Reid reports on the new "AirLegs" technology you'll see only on "CBS This Morning"
New "AirLegs" technology helps troops stay one step ahead 04:17

This piece originally aired on November 11, 2014.

The military's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) lab creates stunning inventions that could help our service members stay one step ahead when answering the call of duty.

Those creative and skillful minds gave "CBS This Morning" a sneak peek at technology you may have thought only existed in your dreams, reports CBS News correspondent Chip Reid.

From stealth fighters to Siri, DARPA's projects aim to transform next generation 02:35

When Jason Kerestes goes for a run, he gets a boost from a strange contraption he wears on his back. He calls it "Airlegs."

"It basically makes you feel like you have bigger muscles," Kerestes said.

Kerestes, a graduate student at Arizona State University, and Professor Tom Sugar, are developing the device for the Pentagon.

The power comes from a tank of compressed air which is connected by pulleys and electronic sensors to braces on the knees.

"We fire air and we pull up on the person's leg to give them assistance at the right time and then this goes back down and back up," Kerestes said. "It's helping you lift your leg so that it will help you run up stairs, it will help you run faster."

At this early stage it reduces the load by 10 percent. The goal is 25 percent, which they said will allow the average soldier or Marine to run a mile in four minutes.

"We do envision an entire platoon wearing wearable robots," Sugar said. "These robots will assist them while carrying 100 pound backpacks."

DARPA director: Technological advances in neuroscience "exciting and terrifying" 02:59

It's one of hundreds of projects at universities and companies across the country funded by DARPA -- an agency known as the Pentagon's team of mad scientists, that's a little like herding cats.

"Actually, if they're great scientists and engineers, that's exactly what it's like," DARPA director Arati Prabhakar said. "Because you want the people that have immense creativity and are off chasing great ideas."

DARPA was created in 1958 in response to the earth-shaking 1957 launch of Sputnik by the Soviet Union.

"It was a huge wake-up call for the United States," Prabhakar said. "Our core mission is breakthrough technologies for national security."

For example, DARPA was behind some of the key, early research on stealth technology, allowing a U.S. aircraft to evade enemy radar.

But many of DARPA's brainstorms have had an enormous impact well beyond the military.

"Forty-five years ago DARPA did this crazy experiment which was to hook a couple of computers together and have them talk to each other," Prabhakar explained. "That was the beginning of the ARPAnet which became the internet today."

DARPA has played a vital role in hundreds of technologies ranging from sophisticated prosthetic limbs for wounded warriors to GPS. They even developed many of the components in today's smart phones, including SIRI.

Some of DARPA's wildest ideas come from nature -- like their research on mini-robots.

Just as armies of ants work together to accomplish amazing things, DARPA hopes to create armies of mini-robots for micro-manufacturing.

The gecko also caught DARPA's attention because of its ability to climb walls.

"It looks like he is hanging on with ten toes but when you zoom in what you find is there are about half a billion points of contact," Prabhakar said.

So DARPA created a gecko-like material that easily supports the weight of humans.

In a never-before seen video, a Special Forces soldier uses it to climb straight up a wall -- a technology that could one day be used in hostage rescue missions.

The inventors of the "Airlegs" device hope it will not only help the military, but also one day give people with disabilities greater mobility.

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