Whitney Palmer

Healthcare. Politics. Family.

N.C. scientists helping soldiers: Military funding grows for research into protective clothes, high-tech training, night vision

Published in the Aug. 30, 2010, Raleigh News & Observer and the Aug. 30, 2010, Charlotte Observer

BY WHITNEY L.J. HOWELL – CORRESPONDENT

RESEARCH TRIANGLE — The room’s temperature is more than 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit. Flames from ignited propane gas attack the man trapped inside, searing his face and hands. Suddenly, the fireball disappears, and a charred smell hangs in the air.

This explosion happens frequently at the Textile Protection and Comfort Center at N.C. State University. Fortunately, the captive is PyroMan, a life-size, flame-resistant mannequin outfitted with 122 thermal sensors and dressed in full protective gear.

Setting him aflame helps researchers determine how well thermal protective clothing shields the body – information the U.S. military is eager to know.

“The copper discs in PyroMan’s thermal sensors absorb the heat and tell us where he’s received first-, second- or third-degree burns,” said Roger Barker, Comfort Center leader and textile engineering researcher. “These data tell where we must improve the protective clothing. It’s a huge benefit to anyone who wears a uniform.”

Since 2008, NCSU, UNC-Chapel Hill and Duke University have helped North Carolina increase its share of U.S. Department of Defense research funding from $4.9million to $21.3 million this year, said Kimrey Rhinehardt, vice president for federal and military relations for the University of North Carolina system.

“Our universities have lab space, and researchers have the portfolios, to receive research grants,” Rhinehardt said. “They are starting to ask what needs the military has and look for solutions instead of taking theirideas to the military and requesting funding.”

The research runs the gamut, including PyroMan experiments at NCSU, computer training models at UNC-Chapel Hill and infrared detection improvements at Duke. Much of the work has immediate uses in the military, but the projects also have potential civilian applications.

“These research projects will definitely affect Special Operations forces, many of whom are based in North Carolina,” Rhinehardt said. “But it could be 10 to 15 years before we see any real impact.”

Protective gear

NCSU’s multimillion-dollar Comfort Center runs PyroMan through fireballs, subjects a smaller model called PyroHands to equal heat abuse, and exposes team members to simulated chemical warfare assaults.

The NCSU team builds test mannequins and designs lighter-weight, more flexible protective body suits, gloves and boots, making general movement easier and giving troops or first responders more dexterity to open doors or pick up objects. Researchers test each blend of fabrics for strength, comfort, heat resistance and moisture absorption.

The lab is part of North Carolina’s push to increase its participation in military research and innovation.

“All military branches have been interested in the abilities of the protective gear we design,” Barker said. “They appreciate that these suits and gloves can protect military personnel from thermal hazards like those from an (improvised explosive device).”

Heat isn’t the only danger, however. Chemical and biological agents also pose a risk to soldiers. Barker’s team

Computer science researchers at UNC-Chapel Hill, with funding from the Office of Naval Research, developed a sand art table that military trainers can use to draw topographies. The table gives trainers the ability to change colors or location features.

designs full-body suits meant to seal out harmful substances and tests the gear in the one-of-a-kind Man-in-Simulant Test lab.

The team floods the lab with vaporized oil of wintergreen – a harmless substance used instead of mustard gas in chemical research – and a member of Barker’s team climbs ladders and drags heavy objects, mimicking actions taken during biohazardous situations.

Adhesive pads under the suit absorb the wintergreen vapor that seeps inside, and researchers analyze the pads to measure the level of wintergreen infiltration and identify the suit’s weak points.

3-D isn’t just for fun

At UNC-Chapel Hill, scientists are developing technologies to improve training. Greg Welch and a team of computer science researchers at UNC-CH are collaborating with businesses and the Naval Postgraduate School on an intelligent-training system using automatically controlled point-and-tilt cameras, as well as 3-D imaging.

“Right now, when Marines train, supervisors in orange vests observe them and take notes. They’re experts, but they can’t see everything,” Welch said. “The military asked us to create an automated system to analyze what Marines do in a quantifiable, regular way. Actually showing an individual what he or she does wrong could save their lives.”

A virtual imaging sand table helps military trainers create a 3D landscape and alter it to perfect strategies, Welch said. A magnetic coil sits under the table, and trainers use an electronic pen outfitted with another coil to paint the sand surfaces different colors. Digital projectors enables trainers to change the lighting on the table to simulate different building textures or times of day.

How to see in the dark

NCSU researchers, in collaboration with Duke, are also trying to improve night-vision goggles.

Current night vision equipment is criticized for its bulk and lack of clarity. Integrating vanadium oxide – a thermal imaging agent – with a silicon computer chip makes the gear lighter and increases processing speed, creating a smart sensor.

“By putting the sensor and the computer on the same chip, we’ve made the device wireless,” said Jay Narayan, an NCSU materials science engineering researcher. “It’s smart – it can sense, manage and respond to things quickly, especially on the battlefield.”

Narayan creates the smart sensor through “domain matching epitaxy,” a process that produces single, defect-free crystal layers of different materials. The ultra-thin layers – roughly the thickness of two blood platelets side-by-side – improve electronic signal flow between layers.

Duke University electrical and computer engineering researcher Adrienne Stiff-Roberts uses quantum dots – tiny semiconductors that measure various electromagnetic energy types – to improve infrared detection. Currently, the military uses lower-quality night vision because high-clarity infrared detectors require liquid nitrogen storage at 100 degrees below freezing, Stiff-Roberts said. Quantum dot detectors don’t need liquid nitrogen and could work like high-quality digital cameras.

Stiff-Roberts designs quantum dots that target specific wavelengths – such as those that aren’t absorbed by water and carbon dioxide – allowing sight through clouds and for those who travel through smoke.

“If you can eliminate that need for cooling, you might even be able to have individual soldiers with these better cameras,” she said. “If you can hit multiple wavelengths, it’s like full color as opposed to black and white.”

To read the Raleigh News & Observer story online: http://www.newsobserver.com/2010/08/30/654377/nc-scientists-helping-soldiers.html

To read the Charlotte News & Observer story online: http://www.charlotteobserver.com/2010/08/29/1653082/nc-scientists-helping-soldiers.html

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August 30, 2010 - Posted by | Science | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

1 Comment »

  1. Excellent article. Really hit all my geek points, and sounds a lot cooler than someday maybe invisibility suits.

    Comment by BmoreKarl | August 30, 2010 | Reply


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