Smart materials mean lighter and more comfortable gear—and more flexible procurement policies.
The nature of military warfare has undergone a seismic change over the past twenty years. Theaters of engagement are now more diverse and complex, demanding more of military personnel than ever before. The traditional procurement policy of buying in bulk to ensure standardization and cost efficiencies are in question as the U.S. and other governments seek innovative smart gear.
In Australia, the government set up “Diggerworks,” an organization of army personnel, in response to complaints from troops that much of their gear was not fit for the task. As Australian troops move among countries like Timor, Afghanistan, Iraq and the Solomon Islands, equipment needs are not static. What is a good fit for one environment can be disastrous in another. Diggerworks focuses on user engagement, gaining rapid feedback from troops as they rotate through twelve-month and three-year brigade schedules.
Recognizing the above factors, there is a move toward procurement policies that are more flexible, buying in bulk when possible, while looking to find ways to work with small, innovative suppliers. This approach also recognizes the pace of technological advancement and the fact that innovation can emerge from small-to-medium-sized companies and even start-ups. This is especially important for the emerging smart materials and wearable technology industry.
The first Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) International Symposium on Wearable Computers was held at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 1997. (IEEE also represents a broader group of professionals committed to technological innovation and excellence for the benefit of humanity.) There was a strong military presence at the symposium, most notably the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), and its impact was evident in much of the research in the field.
Following the symposium, in a conversation with an academic and his military research partner, I asked about the weight of their prototype. Both were nonplussed by the discussion; they said that the people wearing the device were the SEALs, so they just did as they were asked, no questions. However, after almost two decades, attitudes have changed significantly to the point where the well-being of those wearing the devices are now motivating much of the research and development.
In May 2015, the Naval Research Laboratory held its first “Lab Day” at the Pentagon to showcase the latest innovations and future direction. Raymond M. Gamache of the research lab’s chemistry division has developed a flexible body armor to protect the wearer against bullet fire and fragmentation and, to some degree, against explosions. The development combines a dimpled foam rubber-like fabric for the torso with an insert of interlocking pieces that become solid upon impact (much like the sea cucumber).
Stories of troops refusing to wear armor because of its weight and restriction were a motivating factor in the development, according to Gamache, who said, “With this technology, we’re trying to essentially make lighter, more compliant materials that people will be willing to wear [but] still gives equivalent protection … and that’s the bottom line.”
Bulk can also cause serious difficulty for the wearer, depending on factors such as location, activity and speed of response required.
In the U.K., BAE Systems with the British military wearables company Intelligent Textiles have developed a tactical vest intended to significantly reduce the wires and cables traditionally associated with wearable technology. The vest uses conductive yarns that are capable of charging and powering electronics using a USB connection. The technology used, called the Broadsword Spine, is a lightweight and cable-free alternative to existing systems, according to Paul Burke, defense information and technology director at BAE Systems Military Air and Information.
While revolutionary fabric developments capture the media headlines, much is also being achieved through painstaking evolutionary research that can take decades to mature. The Belgian company Sofinal, no longer in business, introduced a self-healing fabric almost fifteen years ago. Today, another Belgian research group, Centexbel, is developing autonomous self-healing coatings for textiles that can be activated at room temperature.
In the U.S., researchers are working to combine self-healing properties with protection from chemical and biological attack. Inspired by squid ring teeth proteins, the Materials Research Institute at Penn State University has developed self-healing polyelectrolyte coatings comprised of positively and negatively charged polymers. The coating is applied in a series of layers that increase the strength of the fibers, and it is self-healing in wet conditions, so just washing the fabric can repair small defects in the coating.
Robots have long been associated with manufacturing, including textiles, but we are now seeing the emergence of robotics that exhibit textile-like properties. Fashion robotics were presented at the IFAI Expo 2012 in Boston by MIT researcher Adam Whiton, who showed his Zipperbot, capable of doing and undoing a garment zip (see www.advancedtextilessource.com, December 2012 online edition).
DARPA-funded research at Harvard University’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering is developing soft robotics in the form of exoskeletons. Researcher Conor Walsh is looking at the biomechanics of human gait in the development of a lightweight, flexible and more ergonomic design that weighs about thirteen pounds. A series of flexible strain sensors constantly monitor the tension, speed and leg positions so that the suit can mimic the wearer’s own movement. Researchers say that the suit may help a soldier walk 15–20 percent farther without getting tired.
Originating from the Chief of Naval Research, inventors Raymond Gamache and Justin Blair received a U.S. patent for “Interleaving angled hexagonal tile (AHT) for flexible armor” that’s incorporated into a liner for an array of armored clothing.
Here’s how it works: the AHT includes a hexagonally-symmetric solid object, composed of a homogeneous material, which has obverse and reverse planar surfaces parallel to each other. Each planar surface has triangularly disposed terminals. First and second triple sets of oblique surfaces are disposed between the obverse and reverse planar surfaces. A plurality of facets is disposed substantially perpendicular to the planar surfaces. The facets connect between edges of the planar surfaces and adjacent edges of the oblique surfaces. The first and second triple sets of oblique surfaces are disposed to alternate with each other.
Gamache, with Charles Roland, Daniel Fragiadakis, Carl Giller and Roshdy G.S. Barsoum, patented “Polymer coatings with embedded hollow spheres for armor for blast and ballistic mitigation” in a project with the U.S. Navy. The goal is a lightweight armor system providing blast protection and ballistic protection against small arms fire and suitable for use in helmets, vehicle protection and other armor systems.
A hard substrate is coated on the front surface with a thin, elastomeric polymer layer, in which hollow ceramic or metal spheres are encapsulated. The coating layer, having a thin elastomeric polymer layer with encapsulated metal or ceramic hollow spheres, can be stand-alone blast protection, or it can be added to an underlying structure.
Smart materials research and development has long partnered with the military. In the early years the challenges were largely focused on power supply, but today it is about scale, cost and the complexity of requirements that need to be met. This is forcing a greater degree of openness among all invested parties, resulting in more user-focused design solutions. The next stage will hopefully see the facilitation of greater opportunities for start-ups and small companies in this industry sector.
Marie O’Mahony is professor of Digital Futures at Ontario College of Art and Design University, Toronto, and a consultant to the advanced textiles industry.