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The Military Super Suit: Greater than its parts
ARL taps into ECBC resources to reduce costs for testing
BY KRISTEN DALTON
It’s all about coming together. The Army Research Laboratory (ARL) has collaborated with the U.S. Army Edgewood Chemical Biological Center (ECBC) in piecing together one of the military’s most advanced chemical-biological defense systems for troops in combat: the Super Suit.
The over-garment suit protects soldiers from potential bio-weapons attacks and may one day feature an automated, networked biological detection sensor that could identify and warn against Biological Warfare Agents (BWA) simultaneously.
“It’s always been hard to come up with an all-in-one ensemble for any individual soldier, sailor, Marine, or Airmen. That’s very challenging because you have to use expensive testing to come up with that,” said retired Master Sgt. Lamar Garrett, the ARL field element chief for ECBC.
“So what we’re basically trying to do is come up with an integrative way of trying to make all of those components interoperable. In the past they’ve been piece meal.”
The two entities are working together to create the Super Suit in order to enhance soldier survivability during a time when deadly pathogens and environmental threats continue to evolve. The seamless integration of the suit’s parts, which include a protective mask, gloves, boots, clothing and helmet, into one total operating system is a new concept that ARL and ECBC have been developing in order to protect the military’s troops while still allowing them to effectively perform at high levels.
According to Garrett, the all-in-one concept had been tested about 10 years ago before the project hit a snag in development, halting the process. Now, with ARL guiding the evaluation of the ensemble using ECBC resources, the two teams are working as one to determine whether or not it is feasible to pursue the production of these suits without burning a hole in the budget.
“There used to be a time where you could say, ‘Hey, this is a really good idea, get somebody to sponsor it to pay for it,’ and then you’d be able to go ahead and pursue it and go through all the testing. But that’s not really feasible to do that these days,” explained Garrett.
“Because remember when the military develops stuff, they’re developing it for thousands of personnel. It’s not something we’re developing hoping to sell 5,000. It’s not like that.”
Aside from keeping costs down for testing, putting together each component in a way that would not limit movement, restrict vision or add bulk and weight to the soldier has been a complex challenge that engineers have faced during the research and development process. While ECBC has provided the expertise throughout the design and development phases of the project, ARL has contributed a human factor support element that gives both teams insight into how the suit would affect the personnel wearing it.
Though the human factor element is not usually included in the design or development phase, Garrett said it is a necessary tool that ensures an innovative, more complete product that can withstand various challenges over time. Volunteer soldiers test the suits at the Known Distance (KD) Range on the Aberdeen Proving Ground in Edgewood, Md., where ECBC is located. Experiments are designed to test whether or not a soldier can effectively perform his or her duties while wearing the Super Suit on a four kilometer cross-country course through marshes, thick foliage, fallen trees and mountainous terrain.
The integration of these parts into one full-body protective suit, however, has raised challenges regarding the potential effects of encapsulation, or fully enclosing the human body to protect it from exposure to the environment. Cognitive functions like processing information, problem solving, logical and spatial reasoning, mathematical calculation, short-term memory and the ability to shoot a weapon are evaluated by the ARL and ECBC team. Additionally, physical conditioning, individual clothing, test loads and mobility are examined during marching maneuvers.
Garrett said the soldiers typically submit feedback through assessments that ask the individual what they had seen, heard and observed about the suit while wearing it during the testing. The data is then compiled into a report that recommends what adjustments need to be made to the suit in order for a potential private company to begin production.
“Those are typically the roles we play, and that’s why it’s imperative that we are involved, especially early on. It can save you a lot of headaches. It could save you from a flawed designed if you have to make a change, one change, you know?” said Garrett.
“Especially if you develop a couple hundred of these, that impacts the program and those resources are wasted.”
The Super Suit is currently undergoing additional testing and, if successful, Garrett said the gear could be equally beneficial to agencies outside of the military realm, including weapons of mass destruction civil support teams, firefighters, law enforcement and emergency management teams. Until then, ARL and ECBC will continue their collaborative efforts to fine-tune the soldier’s frontline defense against evolving chemical biological threats.
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