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MIT to design futuristic Army battlesuit

By DAVE HASKELL

CAMBRIDGE, Mass., March 13 (UPI) -- MIT scientists said Wednesday they envision using revolutionary nanotechnology to create for the Army a lightweight battlesuit that will give future soldiers a better chance of surviving.

The Army announced Wednesday it had selected MIT to develop chameleon-like uniforms and materials that could help protect soldiers against detection, threats, bullets and chemical agents, monitor their life support systems and even heal those who are wounded. The suit could also allow soldiers to leap 20 feet to the top of a wall.

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"If some of this stuff works, it's going to be worthwhile," Prof. Thomas Magnanti, MIT's dean of engineering, said at a news conference detailing the project.

Under a $50-million, five-year contract, an Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies is to be established at MIT, directed by Prof. Edwin Thomas of the Department of Materials Science and Engineering.

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MIT Provost Robert Brown said that other support coming from industrial partners will raise the support level to almost $90 over that period.

The Army said MIT was chosen over other universities competing for the contract in an open and competitive process. Regulations prevented the names of the other competitors from being disclosed until after the contract is actually signed, MIT said.

The scientists said the institute will conduct basic research to advance the state-of-the-art in nanotechnology to design materials that will integrate properties from the molecular to the fabric level for the battlesuit.

"To build things from the levels of atoms and molecules up," Magnanti said, "that's what nanotechnology is all about. I'm convinced we'll do great engineering and great science."

The battlesuit would be made up of soft and hard armor regions -- a kind of nanoscopic chain mail such as worn by medieval warriors -- as well as be flexible and comfortable to wear.

It will have mechanical detectors, chemical, electrical, photonic and biosensors that can detect harmful chemical or biological agents as well as send and receive information about biological and chemical threats.

Fiber sensors will also monitor the physical status of the soldier.

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Magnanti noted that the average Roman soldier, with uniform and shield, carried gear that weighed 45 pounds, while the modern American soldier is burdened with from between 125 and 145 pounds.

The envisioned battlesuit, using lightweight nanomanufactured materials, would address that problem.

"It is clearly a significant problem in terms of how to reduce the weight of these uniforms, how to make these uniforms more functional, and how to provide a better protection for our soldiers," Magnanti said.

Magnanti said the research is going into "uncharted territory, so you don't know exactly what you're going to get. That means there's some really huge possibilities for some significant revolutionary advances."

The key to the whole concept of a soldier battlesuit is an interwoven fabric, "a textile which is woven together bringing lots of different kinds of capabilities together in a single garment," Thomas said. "It would provide chemical protection, ballistic protection, sensing, it could change from a soft fabric to a hard kind of shell for protection."

"This battlesuit is going to be kind of complicated," Thomas said. "For example, depending on where a bullet is coming, you may want to stop it and sometimes you don't want to stop it, you want to let it go through. Like an arm, you might let the bullet penetrate the arm," but as for chest area, "absolutely you've got to stop penetration."

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He admitted that "stopping bullets is going to be tricky."

The suit will also be designed to automatically create splints and casts through what are called ferrofluids filling the hollow fibers of the fabric. Those will allow the suit to be transformed from a flexible garment into a rigid shell of liquid armor or a splint for a broken bone when the wounded soldier activates a power supply.

"We imagine some of the fibers in this textile to be empty, hollow fibers, and they're filled with fluids," Thomas explained. "Without any particular (magnetic) field on these fluids they are soft and the fabric would be worn as a comfortable garment. However, if the soldier were to activate a power supply and turn a field on," the fluid would be turned into a solid.

"So if there was a blast or you knew if there was an imminent danger coming, you could kind of have a portable foxhole and hunker down until the threat passed," Thomas said.

Another focus of the research will be to design a suit that would help keep the soldier from being seen by using sensors so that the uniform would blend into whatever background might be. The soldiers would also wear boots that would build up a charge of energy so that, if needed, a leap of 20 feet up would be possible.

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"We want to understand what the soldier needs, and we're talking protection and survivability," Thomas said. "We hope to be able to deliver some goods early, if we can."

He said that with the help of industry partners, prototypes could eventually be fielded "in a fairly short time."

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(For more information, see the website mit.edu/news)

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