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Army scientists find ways to make body armor lighter

Sep. 11, 2013 - 08:25PM   |  
This photo shows a ceramic panel shot up after recent improvements.
This photo shows a ceramic panel shot up after recent improvements. (Dayton Armor LLC)
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This photo shows ceramic panels shot up before recent improvements to the armor (Dayton Armor LLC)

Army scientists say they have pioneered a way to make body armor for soldiers that would be 10 percent lighter, but just as strong.

“This is parasitic weight, this is weight that’s on them constantly and sapping their energy in extreme environments, but in the instant it’s needed, it needs to work,” said Shawn Walsh, who leads the project at the Army Research Laboratory at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Md. ARL falls under Army Research, Development and Engineering Command.

Walsh said the armor soldiers wear now, made from ceramics and plastics that are some of the lightest and strongest materials commercially available, is “the best in the world and the best the Army can give them.”

“Our challenge is how do you make something great better, so it wasn’t better so much as lighter,” he said.

Walsh’s team was able to reduce the weight of a medium-sized Enhanced Small Arms Protective Insert, or ESAPI, plate from 5.45 pounds to 4.9 pounds.

Under the Defense Department’s Manufacturing Technology Program, Army and commercial scientists have over three years explored a combination of government and commercial technologies to improve both the ceramic armor plates and plastic backings that hold them. They also developed efficient assembly processes to make the armor, Walsh said.

The Army Research Laboratory partnered with Project Manager Soldier Protection and Individual Equipment; RDECOM’s Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center; and the six commercial manufacturers for the breakthroughs.

Scientists have preliminarily demonstrated the new technology and expect to transfer it to the acquisitions office for soldier equipment. Walsh could not say how long it would take for soldiers to receive the armor, but said a similar process for a new helmet took two years.

“We’ve demonstrated in a manufacturing relevant environment, which is not the same as we are ready to field this tomorrow,” he said. “This is body armor, and if it doesn’t work, there’s a problem.”

Next the Army will put the technology through rigorous tests, including environmental tests, he said.

Ultimately the acquisitions office Program Executive Office Soldier—whose body armor system has a requirement for 5 to 15 percent lighter armor—would have to develop a fielding plan, Walsh said.

Integrating technologies

Body armor works by managing the momentum of a bullet to keep it from penetrating the armor. It cannot allow the bullet to dent the backing such that it injures the wearer. But when there is less material to stop the bullet, both jobs become more challenging, Walsh said.

Army scientists used research that showed they could afford to lose some of the material if they could figure out a way to hold the ceramic plates together for a split second longer—actually 4 to 10 microseconds.

Using a commercially developed surface treatment technique, they were able to get bullet to “dwell” longer and to keep the ceramic plate together for longer, to “eat up the bullet’s momentum,” Walsh said.

“The ceramic has more integrity to do more work, and that’s very critical,” Walsh said.

They also used a government-developed “architecture” for the plastic backing that works like a catcher’s mitt for the ceramic and bullet fragments, Walsh said. The design keeps the backing from deforming under pressure from the bullet, thereby reducing the trauma to the wearer.

Another challenge for Army scientists was developing a means to mass produce the armor, a necessity if it is to be fielded across the Army.

Walsh said the process his team developed took existing commercial materials and made them perform better than when delivered by the manufacturer.

“We’ve created an environment for innovation and incubated some of these very promising technologies,” Walsh said. “They can take their own intellectual property and integrate it with ours to get the best solution. We’ve maximized technology transfer for each dollar we invested.”

While the new techniques for layering backing materials and for treating the ceramic plates were too sensitive for him to discuss openly, Walsh said the Army plans to share the techniques with the defense industry.

“We can make these materials and make them reliably, and these technologies can be sliced into the current body armor manufacturing process very easily,” he said.

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