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.”
Scroll down or jump ahead for session-by-session recaps and video replays of the 2020 Iowa Virtual Human Summit
“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
Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst, the first female combat veteran elected to the Senate, shared her experience with and expressed her gratitude to the number of researchers dedicated to designing and producing better personal protective equipment for female members of the military.
“I know that during my own deployment, wearing the vest and plates, they didn’t fit properly,” Ernst says. “I’m a much smaller build than some of my truck drivers and mechanics, some were pretty big, burly guys. For those of us who are smaller women, it just did not fit properly, and we have seen a number of injuries associated with ill-fitting, ironically protective, gear.”
Ernst explained 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.
Now serving in the Senate, Ernst now has the ability to push for these changes to female protective equipment through the National Defense Authorization Act.
UI President Bruce Harreld expanded on the uses of modeling and simulation, saying that Santos, ITI’s digital twin, has great applications in the tactical movement and mission planning for soldiers.
Overseeing the U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) as the Subcommittee Chairwoman on Emerging Threats and Capabilities, Ernst said that making decisions in a lab setting before soldiers are even outfitted for the battlefield is a great advantage.
“One thing that’s important to Congress is making sure we have the best possible equipment fielded for men and women,” Ernst says. “We can do that through the laboratory, and by doing it through the laboratory, we also see cost savings in that we are outfitting them with the best possible equipment without going through various trials and outfitting our entire force with equipment that may not work properly or fit properly.”
Ernst is putting forth a bipartisan proposal to ensure body armor and personal protective equipment (PPE) is adequate, properly fitted, and readily available for female service members. Progress in the outfitting of equipment will be tracked by the Defense Health Agency.
“It encourages the collaboration between academia and industry so that we can leverage emerging technology,” said Ernst. “We are excited about it. It dives into predictive human modeling, human factors simulation and modeling, and that will all help us as we are developing the next generation of body armor.”
LTC Stephen Miller, product manager at Combat Capabilities Development Command (CCDC) Soldier Center, presented details of the Soldier Protection System (SPS) Capability Set. This is an integrated, single system of protective gear for service members.
Located in Natick, Mass., the Soldier Center pursues research for the next generation of body armor for service members. The Soldier Center has been conducting human factors evaluations to determine what changes must be made to protective gear for male and female service members alike.
The SPS includes torso and extremity protective gear, comprising a Ballistic Combat Shirt (BCS), Modular Scalable Vest (MSV), and Blast Pelvic Protector (BPP). These components are now being outfitted with specific improvements for female and small-stature service members: smaller sizes, shorter arm lengths, hair bun cut-outs, flared sweep at the hips to prevent the shirt from riding up, etc. Smaller and alternative sizes of the Vital Torso Protection (VTP) armor plates are being produced as well. The new sizes include extra small short, small short, and small long to protect service members without compromising comfortability and mobility.
Also included in SPS is the Integrated Head Protection System (IHPS). With the IHPS, a more protective yet lighter-weight helmet has been created, and the next-generation prototype of IHPS will provide further protection without increasing weight. Female-specific alterations to IHPS include redesigned retention straps that reduce peripheral vision and ear interference and a redesigned “H-Back” strap that will fit around hair buns.
Karen Gregorczyk is the branch chief of the Physical Performance Branch at the Soldier Center. The Physical Performance Branch works to bring a holistic approach to understanding the effects of equipment and anthropology on design guidance. The Branch utilizes a front-end analysis of female body gear, pinpointing where new measurements and alterations must be made to better design protective equipment. Then, new design concepts can be created and spread to various branches of the military for further testing and potential use.
Nembhard became the dean of the College of Engineering at a challenging time; however, she knows that the COVID-19 pandemic will not stop the groundbreaking research done at the University of Iowa.
The College of Engineering will continue being a community of inclusivity and excellence with shared values. Nembhard will bring forth new resources for undergraduate students and get graduates employed. Students must understand how their work as engineers intersects with other fields, especially public health. The university will continue its partnerships with government agencies and private industry to continue its legacy in spreading knowledge and technology throughout the world.
With research spanning 15 years, Dr. Malek says the Virtual Soldier Research (VSR) Program
at the University of Iowa is finally maturing enough to solve real-world problems. Santos, a physics- and physiology-based digital human model at the forefront of VSR’s research, is capable of predicting physical human behavior without prerecorded data. Santos and his female counterpart Sophia operate on 215 degrees of freedom based on true human movement.
"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," Malek says.
Collaborating with the U.S. Marine Corps on GruntSim, Santos is put through a number of warfighting scenarios aided by data from the Marines. Able to be configured to certain body types, Santos processes fatigue, strength, anthropometry, etc. in order to dictate whether he is able to complete a task. Santos and Sophia put on display the capabilities and limits of the human body in various scenarios soldiers may encounter. VSR has also been focusing on personal protective equipment, testing different armor configurations on Santos and Sophia to predict what may happen in real-world scenarios. Using a 1:1 model of the human body that will soon be integrated in Santos, VSR is working to predict injury and survivability of soldiers.
Digital human models like Santos and Sophia do not replace the need for physical, in-person testing of equipment and warfighting scenarios, but they can be of extreme help in reducing the cost and time of the design process of personal protective equipment for service members.
The goal of the System Assessment and Validation for Emergency Responders (SAVER) program is to provide a database of detailed equipment specifications to first responders and law enforcement agencies, says Kris Dooley, a program analyst for the SAVER program, which is part of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) National Urban Security Technology Laboratory (NUSTL).
To obtain these specifications, NUSTL organizes focus groups with members of these organizations to assess features of the equipment. NUSTL relies on the experience of their collaborators as they have the greatest understanding of the needs of responders in the field. The overall score of the product is based on four weighted categories: capability (30%), usability (50%), deployability (15%), and maintainability (5%). Product assessments are published on the SAVER document library and can be accessed publicly or, should the document contain sensitive information, through limited distribution. This allows first responders and law enforcement agencies to view equipment specifications to make optimal procurement decisions. While SAVER does not use virtual reality principles to aid in their projects, Dooley stated they will in the near future.
NUSTL has leveraged the SAVER program to develop better-fitting body armor for women and has determined key features for obtaining this goal. A focus group has found that women require more measurement landmarks to get a proper fit. Chest plates must be produced in different shapes to account for a range of cup sizes, and the armor will be fitted with more fixed and removable straps to allow for more precise adjustments. The armor is awaiting NIJ Ballistic Resistance Armor Standard verification to be approved for use.
Military simulation training faces a number of limitations that make modern requirements on the battlefield more difficult to achieve, says Mike Cannizzaro, director of the Synthetic Training Environment (STE) Cross Functional Team Science & Technology Division. Because of this, the U.S. Army has prioritized the STE to modernize soldier simulation training. STE is designed to provide an immersive training and mission rehearsal simulation from the soldier up. The simulation’s One World Terrain technology will place soldiers on virtual 3-D battlefields around the world.
STE is fostering relationships with industry and academia to aid in the development of simulation training technology. Unlike other military technology projects, STE will continue to keep industry and academia in the conversation, capitalizing on the development of new tools and techniques from around the world.
Implementing female trauma manikins in training would guarantee that soldiers are capable of properly administering first aid to both sexes. Using these manikins as well as including women in first-aid training would train male soldiers to treat wounded women without hesitation. Program Executive Office for Simulation, Training and Instrumentation (PEO STRI) intends to leverage female trauma manikins along with virtual reality technology for data collection in training environments.
Female soldiers got approved to serve in combative positions in 2013. Since then, startling statistics arose showing that women are far more likely to die from combat injuries than men. A major factor leading to this discrepancy is that women are anatomically different from men and soldiers are only trained on trauma manikins that emulate the male body. Soldiers are simply not as well prepared to treat wounded women leading to preventable fatalities. Another factor is that male soldiers tend to hesitate before treating a female soldier out of fear of committing sexual harassment.
As of now, there are no female trauma manikins on the market.
A group of organizations in industry, academia, and government are collaborating to better focus modeling and simulation on real human behavior. Organized partly through forums held by the Army Modeling and Simulation Office, the research is working to integrate the many facets of human behavior and social structure into modeling and simulation to aid in decision-making on the battlefield and in emergency situations.
The many facets of simulation technology require a diverse set of expertise to achieve an authentic and accurate portrayal of real human behavior. Henry Hargrove, a technical analyst at RAND Corp., stressed that soldier simulation must not only look at the physicality of the soldier and the equipment they wear; simulation must consider human behavior to gain an authentic view into what real-world scenarios look like in comparison to training simulations.
In 2016, RAND Corp. created an empirical model—Will-to-Fight—that points out the numerous layers of human behavior specific to soldiers. These layers include the soldier, their unit, the organization they are working under, the state or nation supporting their efforts, and the surrounding society. A holistic analysis of the human cannot ignore these factors. Implemented through an incremental modeling approach, aspects of human behavior such as hesitation or the decision to flee conflict are introduced into battle simulations. These additions are only the beginning: group decision-making, a leader’s influence on their subordinates, etc. will also be implemented.
The future of this field of research hopes to integrate artificial intelligence and machine learning to discover tactics that may have been overlooked because of human nature, optimize human readiness, and enhance human performance on the battlefield.
Titus Human Performance's SPEAR Enterprise Data System is a data management tool that would be used to track and predict soldier health and performance. Leveraging artificial intelligence could produce a "digital twin” of a soldier to aid in data ingestion and analysis. Changes in factors such as physical fitness, nutrition, or psychological conditions can be used in conjunction with factors such as equipment specifications and climate data to accurately predict how a soldier will perform in different conditions. This allows leaders to ensure their troops are fully capable of completing mission tasks before an operation even begins.
The system will be a great benefit to soldiers as healthcare teams will be able to communicate treatment methods and find the best possible solutions, Titus CEO Adam Faurot says. A near-future goal is to develop real-time data collection into the SPEAR system.
"Pulling in these disparate data domains all in one spot in a secured dot mil environment, taking advantage of best-in-class commercial solutions and not having to have a one-off research instance that doesn't push back in the operational stack, that has been the challenge we've overcome," Faurot says.
A supplier to multiple military outfits and organizations, Hardwire Body Armor is an industry leader in the production of extremely lightweight soft body armor. Hardwire and the University of Iowa are working together to understand how even more weight can be removed from body armor and how armor interacts with soldiers, according to Hardwire CEO George C. Tunis III.
Tunis offered powerful testimony for working with the University of Iowa Technology Institute.
"Doing something with the University of Iowa is going to be game-changing for you; it was for us," Tunis said. "With the University of Iowa it was a collaboration. We were back and forth. We were back and forth, and the idea of reality meeting virtual reality."
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. With the recent progress made in sizing and outfitting armor, modeling and simulation aimed at female service members is now being applied. Hardwire’s fast-paced production of soft body armor in various material configurations allows for a continuous evolution and understanding of the effectiveness and comfortability of soft body armor, both for male and female service members.
The Technology Readiness Level (TRL) scale is used by the Pentagon to determine how close a project is to being operational in the field. However, this scale does not include any human factors in their evaluations. This is a massive oversight as most problems in engineering are due to humans rather than the technology itself; 45% of nuclear power plant accidents, 60% of aircraft accidents, and 80% of NASA accidents are due to humans. Failing to take human error into consideration can cause projects to be significantly delayed or completely discontinued.
The goal of NDIA is to develop a Human Readiness Level (HRL) scale to use in conjunction with the TRL scale to ensure everything is fully operable. Like TRLs, HRLs provide a common language for communication across programs, promote human readiness testing, gauge progress, and manage risks. The scale is determined by assessing the capabilities of humans involved in terms of their own capabilities and limitations, determining human requirements for operating the system, and ensuring the interface has no software or hardware errors. Ensuring TRLs and HRLs are fully mature will allow a program to achieve greater success.
Located in the Central Florida Research Park, METIL incorporates innovative technologies from a mix of scientific specialties to impact society at large, says Metcalf, METIL director. Disciplines encompassed by METIL include simulation, mobile, gaming, augmented reality, cybersecurity, Internet of Things, wearables, and artificial intelligence.
The lab emphasizes a cross-sector integration strategy, implementing technology in government and military, healthcare, education, financial organizations, transportation, and non-profits/charities. Each sector represented benefits from the others in a neutral academic setting—creating public and private benefits to society.
Projects from METIL include VR/AR healthcare and pilot training, anatomical modeling and simulation, and robotic/holographic social companions in medical centers.
Session replay not available.
The Canadian Government has committed to having more than 25% of its armed forces be female by 2026. To meet that goal, protective equipment for female service members must be as comfortable and effective as armor made for male soldiers. Dr. Dinesh Pai, a professor at the University of British Columbia, is working to test the fit of clothing and wearables using realistic models of humans and garments.
Given a body armor design, how can a correct fit be tested and achieved? Pai and his lab have launched VirtualFit, a fit testing software solution featuring soft body digital human models. VirtualFit is scalable from the ground up, meaning that a large number of fit simulations of different body types with similar measurements can be tested simultaneously.
To measure the contact of apparel with soft tissue, Pai’s lab designed and produced a probe that measures composition and properties of soft tissue, leading to a better understanding of how clothing and armor fits on the human body and how it can be improved. An application of this understanding of soft tissue is in hard armor plates that compress soft tissue, especially in female service members.
The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Standards Association serves a variety of companies ranging from startups to major brands. IEEE uses 3D capture, processing, storage, sharing, and augmented representation to aid in 3D design, simulation, and modeling.
A human body can be scanned using an application, and a virtual model with its dimensions can be generated. This geometric data in conjunction with material specifications data can be used to design clothing. Some companies use this method to design custom-fit clothing for their customers. These methods can be leveraged to design better-fitting PPE for women. IEEE also seeks to define fit through finding different measurement landmarks for different body types. Considering that the fit of PPE must allow the greatest range of motions, a system ensuring every soldier is issued custom fitting equipment would benefit their performance and safety.