MIT-West Point Challenge Yields New Soldier Technologies

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.

U.S. Military Academy in West Point, N.Y.
Cadets and fac­ul­ty advi­sors from win­ning Sol­dier Design Com­pe­ti­tion teams are rec­og­nized for their efforts dur­ing a cer­e­mo­ny with Army Brig. Gen. Tim Train­or after return­ing the tro­phy to the U.S. Mil­i­tary Acad­e­my in West Point, N.Y., April 27, 2011.
U.S. Army pho­to by Mike Strass­er
Click to enlarge

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)

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