ORLANDO, FL -- Dressed in black from head to toe and wearing a helmet that allows barely a glimpse of his face, Staff Sgt. Raul Lopez looked like something out of a science fiction thriller.
Lopez, an infantry Soldier stationed at the Natick Soldier Center in Massachusetts, spent four days in what could be the Army uniform of the future at the 24th Army Science Conference, explaining the technology behind it.
The black fabric of the form-fitting suit would be made through the wonder of nanotechnology, which involves manipulating atoms and molecules to create things at the nanometer scale. Thats about 50,000 times smaller than the diameter of a strand of hair. Soldiers wearing the suit would have the ability to blend into any environment, like a chameleon.
The helmet is the main hub of the uniform, where all of the action happens, Lopez said. A tiny video camera in front provides 360-degree situational awareness. A series of sensors inside give the Soldier three-dimensional audiological hearing and the ability to amplify specific sounds, while lowering the volume of others.
Complete voice translation is also provided, for what the Soldier hears and what he or she says. Night vision sensors, minimized to the size of pencil erasers, are also in the helmet. Maps and other situational awareness information are projected on the inside of the visor, while everything the Soldier sees and hears is sent in real time up to higher headquarters.
Its all voice activated, Lopez said. I can tell it to show me where my buddies are, and it projects it on the visor.
Virtual reality technology would also play a part in helping the Soldier navigate an environment by projecting maps on the ground surrounding him or her.
Sensors detect threat, provide treatment
Thermal sensors weaved into the fabric of the uniform control its temperature, based on the Soldiers environment. An on-board respirator, tethered to the Soldiers back, provides a continuous supply of fresh air eliminating the need for a protective mask. Should the Soldier have the visor up, or the helmet off, and breath in some kind of harmful agent, the uniform sensor will immediately detect it, release tiny embedded capsules to counter it and inject treatment into the Soldiers body.
From the waist down, a skeletal system allows the Soldier to carry two or three times his or her body weight, feeling only the weight of their own body through the technology of an XO muscle, which augments a Soldiers strength.
Wearing the futuristic suit doesnt make Lopez feel like a science fiction superhero, or invincible.
Its just conceptual right now, he said, smiling.
Liquid armor protection
The uniform might be made out of fabric treated with another technology featured in the conferences exhibit hall, shear thickening fluid. Unofficially referred to by some as liquid body armor, STF is made of equal parts polyethylene glycol an inert, non-toxic thickening agent used in a variety of common products, like some ice creams and miniscule glass particles, said Eric Wetzel, who heads the STF project team in the Weapons and Materials Research Directorate of the U.S. Army Research Laboratory.
In a small glass vial, the light blue liquid is easily stirred with a small plastic stick as long as the stick is moving in slow, easy motion. When sudden, rapid or forceful motion is applied, the liquid instantly hardens, preventing any movement.
When the movement is slow, the glass particles can flow around each other, Wetzel explained. But when the movement is fast, the particles bump into each other, preventing any flow of movement.
STF has been applied to regular Kevlar material, Wetzel said. The fabrics texture doesnt change; it looks and feels the same as if it hadnt been treated. Using a test swatch of four layers of untreated Kevlar the normal thickness of body armor Wetzel is able to stab an ice pick through the fabric. But when stabbing a treated section of fabric with all the force he can muster, the ice pick dents the fabric but cant penetrate through.
Research is being done into whether STF can be of use to the Army, Wetzel said. If it is, Soldiers may start getting gear treated with it in about two years, he added.