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General, We Shrunk the Kits

June 3, 2011
By Beverly Schaeffer

That's the idea, anyway, and it encompasses all manpack equipment across the board. A dismounted soldier now carries approximately 140 pounds of equipment or more, and that's still not enough to handle the tasks at hand or to protect him in combat. In this month's issue of SIGNAL Magazine, George I. Seffers turns his focus on the U.S. Army Research Office's Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies (ISN), in his article, "Tiny Technologies Promise Powerful Protection." Reducing the cumbersome weight soldiers carry on the battlefield is a major priority for the Army, which is committed to transforming itself into a lighter, more flexible 21st century force. ISN research could one day help transform current combat fatigues and bulky equipment into a do-it-all battle uniform-one resembling the Storm Troopers in Star Wars movies-that is not only lightweight but also provides numerous other benefits. Researchers at the ISN-housed within the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)-are working to develop nanotechnology that improves soldier survivability, with the ultimate goal of helping the Army create a modern battlesuit. This suit would combine high-tech capabilities with light weight and comfort. Army officials envision a thin, bullet-resistant uniform that monitors health, eases injuries, communicates automatically, and reacts to chemical and biological agents. The uniform is a long-range vision for how fundamental nanoscience might make soldiers less vulnerable to different threats, whether from the enemy or the environment. One technology is nanotubes. An ISN scientist has developed a "drawing technique" that Bob Kokoska, the Army's ISN program manager, compares to stretching candy:

In one technology, a person can take, for example, a plastic tube that is perhaps one centimeter across that contains within it some materials that have optical properties so they react to different frequencies of light, or maybe they are able to sense an explosion. Envision this tube being drawn out, like a taffy pull, to the diameter of a human hair. This scientist has been able to draw this out and make meters and meters of this material in a way that maintains the optical or acoustic detection properties embedded there. This is a tremendous technology that has really gone a long way to miniaturizing different types of these sensing capabilities within fabrics and can have quite an impact on the capabilities that can be embedded in a soldier's uniform.

Other advances are in laser surgery techniques, as well as nanomaterials that could result in medicinal patches for battlefield use. Much of the research is aligned with the Army's Future Soldier 2030 concept, which is not a part of Army doctrine. Instead, it's designed to stir imaginations and prompt researchers to find creative solutions for equipping future soldiers. Among these ideas is a flexible, form-fitting, lightweight uniform, which could be paired with a vest that provides vital organs with ballistic protection and could include additional modular armor that can be attached for joints and extremities. Shear-thickening fluids and fabric composites may provide lightweight extremity protection. Limited protection from cuts and fragments could be built into the uniform using chain mail fabricated from carbon nanotubes. Additional protection for extremities may be provided by an exoskeleton structure. Share you ideas about how industry, government and academia can collaborate on these technologies, as well as other ideas that could benefit the warfighter. Read the full article and provide your comments here.

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