Military "SuperSuit" to protect Soldiers from chembio threats already available in pieces; needs integration

June 14, 2012

Story Highlights

  • ARL HRED working with ECBC to help existing protective equipment work better together.
  • Lightening the load of the Soldier.
  • ARL provides chemical and biological defense human system integration support to help the JPEO-CBD deploy interoperable systems at U.S. military installations worldwide.

In a perfect world, U.S. government researchers would create an environmental shield – a superhero-like force field – that would protect a neighborhood or an entire city from the next bio-weapons attack that lambastes America but realistically, the next best solution - short of destroying deadly pathogens worldwide – already exists; if only its components were smartly brought together.

Researchers in the U.S. military's chemical-biological defense area recognize integration as a major obstacle to issuing a truly "super protective over-garment suit", of sorts, to its troops. A number of protective equipment like boots, gloves, masks and full-body coverage have been designed and issued to Soldiers for optimal protection against deadly pathogens and other environmental threats, but learning how well these individual pieces work together is still unknown.

"We're actively seeking a solution," said Lamar Garrett, a human factors engineer who leads the U.S. Army Research Laboratory's (ARLs) Field Element Office, located with the Edgewood Chemical Biological Center (ECBC), where he supports mission programs for the Joint Program Executive Office for Chemical and Biological Defense (JPEO-CBD ) and Program Manager for Night Vision/ Reconnaissance, Surveillance, and Target Acquisition for Persistent Surveillance Systems.

A number of material solutions have and are currently being developed. Presently, the DoD is working on an automated, networked biological detection sensor that is capable of detecting 10 biological warfare agents simultaneously, providing warning and presumptively identifying Biological Warfare Agents (BWAs) to enhance Soldier survivability.

"The lessons of the 2001 anthrax attacks and the H1N1 pandemic in 2009 have taught us that our nation is vulnerable and there is clearly a need for a rapid response against such events. And while no one knows when the next deadly pathogen will show up or when another bio-weapons attack will happen, being prepared is better than the alternative," said Garrett.

The military has traditionally prepared for these threats by issuing chem-suits, full body garments, and other companion pieces. But over time, added protection has meant added weight, and some evidence of cognitive burden on the Soldier, he said.

Garrett said understanding the effects of encapsulation, or fully enclosing covering skin or enclosing the human body to protect it from exposure to the environment, is a long-standing problem within the Defense Department, due in part to a lack of integration and related heat stress.

"The U.S. Army has a limited amount of research information and data regarding the performance effects of encapsulation on the dismounted Soldier," he used as an example in 2006 paper he co-authored with other ARL human factors engineers on the subject.

He said a number of individual components of protective equipment, such as a protective mask, boots, individual protective clothing, helmet and gloves, worn by Soldiers who walk the grounds in combat. Each component is typically tested as stand-alone systems with a short amount of time dedicated to integration to determine how each component might interact with each other to truly understand the impact the total system has on the Soldier who's wearing them.

"Very little performance-based research has been performed with the use of a systems approach to validate Soldier-equipment compatibility," said Garrett, a retired Army master sergeant whose last active duty assignment was in 2004 as an ARL research non-commissioned officer.

He came to ARL in 2004 after serving as a chemical operations specialist in the U.S. Army Chemical Corps, overseeing the use of nuclear, biological and chemical detection (NBC) and decontamination equipment and smoke generators, and assisting in the establishment, administration, training and application of NBC defense measures. In 2010, he received the MANPRINT Practitioner of the Year in the area of Acquisition Technology and Development.

"Insufficient integration of such protective equipment has contributed to unnecessary weight and bulk, as well as restriction of movement, visibility, hearing, and haptic perception—all elements detrimental to successful mission completion," said the Chicago native.

ARL provides chemical and biological defense human system integration support to help the JPEO-CBD deploy interoperable systems at U.S. military installations worldwide. The integrated systems are designed to address potential threats, while developing broad-spectrum technologies that are integrated using a system-of-systems approach to counter the evolving threat, Garrett said.

In Edgewood, Md., where ECBC is based, and on Known Distance (KD) Range on Aberdeen Proving Ground, also located in Maryland, Garrett conducts human systems integration and designs experiments to determine the compatibility of Soldiers' individual protective clothing and equipment, and the impact of the encapsulation on individual performance – including how well Soldiers process information or shoot a weapon – during mobility and probability maneuvers.

He said ARL assesses methods for measuring effects of encapsulation on dismounted warrior mission performance.

The experiments place Soldiers – all volunteers – on a four kilometer cross-country course charted through a vegetawoodsy terrain that loops, crosses marshes, contains thick foliage and fallen trees. The area was designed to give research participants a chance to evaluate the comfort and utility of test loads, individual clothing, and equipment while they march at a moderate pace over natural terrain.

Garrett's team also evaluated Soldiers' short-term memory, logical reasoning, mathematical calculation and perception, and spatial processing functioning. He said these assessments are analyzed to determine the utility of using standardized facilities and tasks for taking a more integrative systems approach to Soldier-equipment compatibility of encapsulation systems. The team wanted to identify problems with a single encapsulation system and to compare two or more encapsulation systems.

"Over the past seven years I attempted to address this problem, but the issue is ongoing because the problem requires a much larger effort and more resources than originally planned," said Garrett, who received a bachelor's degree in Engineering and Management from Park University and a master's degree in System Engineering from Johns Hopkins University.


Last Update / Reviewed: June 14, 2012