| A US soldier weighed down by a mortar. (Reuters)
New York, April 8 (Reuters): When Professor Edwin Thomas strapped on an 18 kg backpack full of sand he realised the challenge faced by American combat soldiers.
“It’s tolerable for a second or two, but after a while the straps are sinking in and it hits you this is something you’re going to be wearing 24 hours a day,” said the material sciences and engineering professor from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
Thomas joined a group of researchers who spent several gruelling hours at an army training camp, getting a sense of what the typical US soldier carries into battle.
He heads the Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies (ISN), a lab opening in May that aims to lighten the load for future soldiers by taking equipment off their backs and weaving it into their clothing.
“If you put a guy in a suit of armour, like the knights of the Middle Ages, it’s no good,” Thomas said.
Along with MIT, scientists from chemical maker DuPont and military contractor Raytheon have joined two hospitals in a $90-million partnership to create outfits for future soldiers.
The army has kicked in $50 million and private industry has contributed $40 million.
Their aim is to miniaturise combat equipment using nanotechnology — engineering at the level of atoms and molecules. DuPont, based in Wilmington, Delaware, has become a partner to keep at the forefront of protective gear.
For decades, the company has supplied such equipment to the military, through brands like Nomex and Kevlar, a tough but light fibre which resists shredding and heat.
The company also supplies the military with nylon for fatigues, Cordura for battle packs and Coolmax for underwear.
While Kevlar and Nomex represent only 3 per cent of the $24 billion of total company sales, they are part of DuPont’s safety and protection business, its fastest-growing and most profitable. That division — which offers security consulting and builds Kevlar rooms that resist blasts and storms — has taken off during the last two years. DuPont says the idea is to use old product lines in new ways.
“Instead of reinventing the wheel, we’re using the knowledge we have,” said Wayne Marsh, who coordinates research efforts between DuPont and the ISN.
Armed with that expertise, researchers want to add layers of high-tech fibres which could carry radio signals, detect toxins, deliver medicine and change colour automatically.
“What we’re trying to do is make the soldier more flexible and reduce weight so they’re more manoeuvrable and can get themselves out of situations,” Marsh said.
Elite forces carry minimal weight into combat — 18 kg assault packs — but the typical GI can carry up to three times the amount.
Researchers hope even lighter, more versatile equipment can reduce both the burden and number of troops dropped into combat zones, where they don’t have the protection of tanks, heavy body armour or personnel carriers.
Military officials have worried about the vulnerability of lightly equipped US commandos since the botched 1993 raid in Mogadishu — where the US troops were ambushed, then dragged through the streets — and are currently concerned about casualties in street fighting in Baghdad.