IOWA CITY (IA) – U.S. Army Maj. Melissa Elledge knows first-hand the pains of wearing ill-fitting, oversized armor vest plates and other personal protective equipment (PPE) after 13 years of service.
Metal digging into your body, loss of circulation, not being able to turn around, or feeling like a “little turtle” when trying to get up with cumbersome equipment on your back have been common experiences for her and other smaller-stature soldiers, the self-described 5-foot-3 assistant product manager with Program Executive Office (PEO) Soldier says.
Now, testing new equipment and systems designed for women and smaller-sized men at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington, she says she can’t hide her excitement at the feel and maneuverability, emphasizing her points with “unreal” and “in awe.”
“The kit I am wearing for the very first time in my 13 years of service, I'm wearing an extra small, short vest,” Elledge says during the 2020 Iowa Virtual Human Summit. “I can sit down for an hour and stand back up and feel my legs because I don't have plates sitting on my legs. The fact that this equipment is available to me, I mean, just from a personal perspective, I'm in awe as much as these soldiers.”
Stakeholders in the military and other areas of the Department of Defense, Department of Homeland Security, private industry, and academic research recognize the need for developing better-fitting body armor and PPE not just for soldiers, but for women and smaller-stature men in a variety of dangerous fields. This need and how virtual technology—including digital twins developed at University of Iowa Technology Institute (ITI)—can be leveraged to meet it was the focus of ITI's Aug. 12 summit, hosted virtually.
Virtual technology can process mountains of data and countless scenarios to speed up and save money in the design and testing process for equipment fit, range of motion, area of coverage, and other factors, speakers say.
"At the end of the day, what we are trying to do is reduce prototype development, save time, save a lot of resources — time and money — and save lives."
—Dr. Karim Malek, ITI director
Malek says ITI technology is finally mature enough to solve real-world problems. ITI's digital twins—Santos, a physics- and physiology-based digital human model at the forefront of ITI research, and companion, Sophia—are capable of predicting physical human behavior without prerecorded data.
University of Iowa (UI) President Bruce Harreld highlighted the university’s commitment to Malek’s cutting-edge research and collaboration across disciplines.
“There’s a long history here of interdisciplinary, multidisciplinary integrated research and collaboration,” Harreld says. “That’s what we do. The bigger the problem, the more collaboration, the better off we are.”
Sen. Joni Ernst (Iowa), the first female combat veteran elected to the Senate, shares her personal experiences and observations about the safety risks during the Summit.
The Iowa Republican and retired National Guard officer was among a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers to introduce the Female Body Armor Modernization Act and include similar language in the 2021 National Defense Authorization Act. She says she is proud ITI is part of the solution.
“There's so many applications you can use your modeling that just goes light years beyond where we have been before,” she says, recounting when she commanded trucks in which cabs sat over engines creating excruciating heat for soldiers. “Doing modeling and behavioral analysis, taking the heat coming from an engine below you, 142-degree Fahrenheit heat outside the vehicle, no air-conditioning. Using those situations and modeling human behavior is really important. I'm thankful that you do have the researchers that are involved in this. We know that our soldiers have literally a much better fighting chance because of what you are doing.”
“There's so many applications you can use your modeling that just goes light years beyond where we have been before."
— Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst
Ernst explains that as armor technology has improved for different equipment and vehicles, female protective equipment has been at a standstill. The armor available to female truck drivers is uncomfortable, cumbersome, and may lead to them opening their vests and removing armor plates, putting them in danger. Through modeling and simulation, areas and situations where armor needs improvement can be pinpointed and researched, she says.
The U.S. Army has added at least eight different sizes to its repertoire of PPE over the years, but officials acknowledged more work remains to allow soldiers to perform duties without compromising safety or risking injury.
“One size does not fit all,” says Doug Tamilio, director of the Army Natick Soldier Research, Development, and Engineering Center, or Soldier Center, in Natick, Mass. “We could do better for females. It’s not necessarily the shot on the body armor. It's the after-effects of that shot, that blast mitigation, what happens afterwards. So, if the armor is not conformed to the body properly and there are spaces within there, that can cause problems.”
Santos could help the Army as it applies high-fidelity avatars to research and development, particularly in medical research, Tamilio says. The new $50 million, 80,000 square foot Soldier and Squad Performance Research Institute with a combat maneuverability lab in Natick will invite collaboration between military research, academia, and industry, he says.
Speaking about anthropometry, human factors, and biomechanics, Tamilio says the Army has expertise but also relies “heavily on our academic and industry partners to conduct the proper research and development to get us to the next level.”
In the military, since women began serving in combat roles five years ago, females are experiencing a greater death rate on the battlefield than male soldier, although not specifically tied to inadequate body armor.
LTC Rickardo Christopher, of the Program Executive Office for Simulation, Training and Instrumentation (PEO STRI), cites hesitancy of male soldiers to render treatment and difference in anatomical structure of the human body as key factors. Christopher’s team is developing female trauma manakins.
Industry leaders provided updates on their technology and product development.
A supplier to multiple military outfits and organizations, Hardwire Body Armor, of Pocomoke City, Md., is an industry leader in the production of extremely lightweight soft body armor. Hardwire and the UI have worked together to understand how even more weight can be removed from body armor and how armor interacts with soldiers, Hardwire CEO George C. Tunis III says.
Using motion capture technology, including stretch sensors originally purposed for the movie industry, UI and Hardwire researched armor motion relative to the body, body motion relative to the armor, and the amount armor moves while the body is in motion.
Tunis offered powerful testimony for working with ITI.
"Doing something with the UI is going to be game-changing for you; it was for us," Tunis said. "With the UI, it was a collaboration. We were back and forth. We were back and forth, and the idea of reality meeting virtual reality."
— George C. Tunis III, Hardwire CEO