WASHINGTON — Every year since 2003, cadets from the U.S. Military Academy and students from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have competed to develop technologies that help soldiers and Marines on the battlefield.
This year, six teams took home awards for advances such as slashing the time it takes to set up sand-filled barriers, designing a safer way to airdrop water supplies, harvesting wind energy from a cell-phone-sized generator, and more.
The MIT Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies, a research center founded in 2002 with a five-year, $50 million Army research contract, holds the Soldier Design Competition.
The institute is in its second five-year contract, and its mission is to use the power of nanotechnology to save the lives of soldiers and Marines.
Nanotechnology is science on the scale of single atoms and molecules. A nanometer is 1 billionth of a meter; a sheet of paper is about 100,000 nanometers thick.
Nanotechnology offers the potential for making things small and lightweight. And because materials act differently at the nano scale than they do at everyday scales of inches, feet and pounds, engineers potentially can create unprecedented new materials and devices.
“Imagine a bullet-resistant jumpsuit,” the institute’s website says, “no thicker than ordinary spandex that monitors health, eases injuries, communicates automatically and reacts instantly to chemical and biological agents.”
This is the institute’s ultimate goal.
In the meantime, efforts such as the Soldier Design Competition harness the ideas and energies of students and cadets for low-cost, semester-length projects that awardees can commercialize quickly and use to help soldiers.
First prize went to a West Point team that redesigned Hercules Engineering Solutions Consortium, or HESCO, barriers, used by U.S., NATO and other military forces around the world. The redesign saved 60 percent of the time needed to protect against small-arms fire when soldiers have to shovel sand into the barriers by hand.
“The team talked to people in small-arms protection who said you only need a foot of sand in the HESCO barrier to stop gunfire, so you don’t need to fill the whole thing up right away,” John McConville, technology transfer officer for the Army Research Office, told American Forces Press Service.
McConville, assigned to the Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies, helps students and cadets link up with Army labs and commands to get the technologies into the field.
An MIT team earned second prize for designing a way to drop water supplies — one large bottle or a pallet of them — from aircraft and get them down safely and without help from people on the ground.
Their model was the wing-like maple-tree seed. Almost as soon as the seed leaves the tree, its aerodynamic shape causes it to rotate around its own center of mass as it spins slowly to the ground.
“The team made a [leaf-shaped wing] out of cardboard, did some calculations, strapped a little bag of water on it and threw it out their dorm window,” McConville said.
“They have a little video of this, and it comes spinning down really slow,” he said, noting that the team analyzed how heavy a bag could be and how fast it could come down without seriously hurting someone on the ground.
“They determined that if they had up to 500 milliliters of water and they used this device,” McConville added, “it wouldn’t hurt anyone.”
The Army’s Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center submitted the problem to the Soldier Design Competition as a humanitarian issue, and McConville said Natick was interested in the design.
For the third prize, an MIT team created a cell-phone-sized device with a lever whose wind-generated vibrations in an electromagnetic field produces electricity. The students, McConville said, “are trying to design it so a soldier can use it to charge a battery.”
Teams also received awards for an augmented reality battlefield smartphone application, a low-cost tactical unmanned aircraft system and a thin-film rechargeable battery in the form of a U.S. flag uniform patch.
Other entries included an advanced adaptable ear-protection system, a soldier sound system that allows vehicle operators to hear important environmental sounds, an exoskeleton, a personal nonlethal distraction device that can be hidden in everyday objects, and a smartphone vibrating-belt system for situational awareness on the battlefield.
Several teams are working with the Army to field their devices, McConville said, and some are patenting their designs in advance of taking them to the commercial market.
“We encourage whatever it takes to commercialize the product and get it to the soldier,” he added.
Even teams whose entries don’t receive awards contribute to the mission, the technology transfer officer noted. “They’re all out there trying to help the soldier,” he said. “There really are no losers.”
U.S. Department of Defense
Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs)