Legacy of pushing scientific boundaries lands ARL as key contributor in forecasting future warrior needs

April 24, 2014

By T'Jae Gibson, ARL Public Affairs

Story Highlights

  • VLOS is being considered as a candidate technology for the U.S. Special Operations Command's ambitious "TALOS" demonstration program.
  • ARL's "quintessential role" is forecasting soldier needs.
  • Technology and systems investigated 10, 20 years ago are now maturing, being fielded.

The U.S. Army Research Laboratory's prototype exoskeleton, the Vertical Load Offset System or VLOS, could one day lead to new helmet technology that displaces the static load of the helmet onto the shoulders and enables the Soldier to tolerate much higher levels of protection and device capability.

It's being considered as a candidate technology for the U.S. Special Operations Command's ambitious "TALOS" demonstration program, which seeks superior protection of "first in" forces involved in highly dangerous and unpredictable scenarios, said Dr. Shawn Walsh, the principal investigator for the VLOS concept development.

The Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center's "HEaDS UP" Program provided both the context and impetus to aggressively explore new approaches of integrated head protection, as well as the operational needs and environments that made VLOS a practical alternative for improved head protection, he said.

Results from recent tests of Soldiers wearing this head system prove promising in moving head protection system technology forward in ways that could allow more equipment like night vision goggles, batteries, radios, etc. to be mounted on helmets of future Soldiers without adding weight on their heads and necks.

Postulating the future technology needs of America's fighting forces is "the quintessential role of ARL," said Dr. Jeffrey Zabinski, chief of ARL's Materials and Manufacturing Division of the Weapons and Materials Research Directorate at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Md. It is through this "informed imaginings" that ARL can leverage basic scientific research to conceptualize, discover, innovate and eventually transition scientific breakthroughs to military systems for soldiers that need them most.

Such was the case with upgrades for ground vehicles, combat helmets and ammunition for example.

The MRAP, one of the most iconic weapon systems deployed during America's last major conflict, changed the course of war, thanks to research in material and detonation science that traces back almost 200 years to the Army Research Laboratory's legacy in Watertown, Mass.

The Watertown Arsenal was established in the early 1800s for the receipt, storage and issuance of ordinance. The arsenal remained active until the Defense Secretary's Commission on Base Realignment and Closure identified the Army Material Technology Laboratory at Watertown for closure in December 1988.

The MRAP's V-shaped undercarriage helped deflect the impact of blasts from improvised explosive devices, a ferocious enemy weapon in Iraq.

In 2008, ARL researchers started looking at a material and manufacturing process that hadn't changed since the early 1970s, and by 2010, had created a new manufacturing capability using a little-known lightweight material – an ultra-high molecular weight polyethylene, a type of thermoplastic - that revolutionized ballistic helmets. The ECH is expected to be fielded by Army and Marine combat forces in 2014.

Also in 2010, ARL's technical expertise in ballistics and lethality research led to the fielding of the M855A1 Enhanced Performance Round. The new, better performing small caliber munition was the result of collaboration among ARL, PEO Ammunition, Project Manager for Maneuver Ammunition Systems at Picatinny Arsenal, the Research Development and Engineering Command and defense contractor Alliant Techsystems. It marked the first time since the 1980s the U.S. Army fielded a new ball cartridge for its 5.56 mm small caliber weapon system.

"Investigations of tough challenges ARL started 10 to 20 years ago are now maturing and poised to help future warriors face combat uncertainty with innovative technological solutions. That's the strength of Army basic research and the essence of our work at the Lab," said Dr. Patrick J. Baker, director of the laboratory's Weapons and Materials Research Directorate. "We're taking multidisciplinary approaches to push the frontiers of fundamental science and technology that result in transformational capabilities.

"We've teamed with academia and industry, and other government partners to invest in science and engineering as well as manufacturing expertise needed to drive innovation, and mature and demonstrate technological capabilities with our partners to provide future warriors with what they need to maintain a decisive technological edge," he said.

This is paramount to the future warrior, who, unlike those who fought conflict during the past 12 years, is expected to face down more technically-capable enemies in more complex, more contested environments like urban territories in more advanced societies. To confront those challenges, ARL is on the brink of transitioning prototype technologies to military users who need them most.

"A great thing about working in the Army lab is that we have a lot of smart people with open minds working in different areas. If you discover or invent something revolutionary that may be big payoff, it won't be tossed aside just because it is different than how the Army fights today. For a scientist who wants to have an impact, that keeps you pretty excited," said Baker.


Last Update / Reviewed: April 24, 2014