Technology and the Future Warrior: Protecting Soldiers in the 21st Century

author: Steve Altes
author: Jean-Louis De Gay, US Army Natic Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center
author: Edwin L. Thomas, Department of Materials Science and Engineering (DMSE), Massachusetts Institute of Technology, MIT
published: Sept. 3, 2013,   recorded: September 2004,   views: 4006

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The Super Soldier has one foot out of the lab, and will be reporting for battle by 2020. “Dutch” DeGay’s Army researchers have begun to “rebuild the soldier from the skin out.” Current infantrymen, stationed in Iraq and Afghanistan, must shoot, move and communicate carrying upwards of 100 pounds of personal armor and equipment. DeGay’s team aims not only to lighten the load, but integrate this soldier into a larger ground and air network. The warrior’s new helmet will house radio and night vision gear, GPS antenna, target illuminator, tactical dropdown eyewear, and will convey data, video and audio feeds for “a 3D picture of the battlefield… in the chaos of battle.” New, ceramic-impregnated body armor can take a strike, evenly absorb the shock, then deform in space without ever touching human skin. Says DeGay, “Comfort has never been part of the paradigm, but now armor will protect and be comfortable.” Steve Altes believes that the next generation of battle gear will go even further to enhance the soldier’s survivability, through the “magic of nanotechnology.” These tiny, molecular building blocks can confer revolutionary properties on everyday materials, such as fabrics.

Ned Thomas’ MIT researchers are looking at ways of transforming the battle suit with a range of smart textiles that will: become rigid when necessary (for instance, create a splint for a broken leg); sense chemical or biological threats and protect a soldier automatically; determine the cause of an injury and administer medicine; and someday, recycle sweat to serve as potable water and as a body cooling device. Thomas says that “some products are already bearing nanofruit,” such as a conducting polymer that can detect TNT, in use now in Iraq.

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