The challenge of protecting combatants while maintaining comfort and preserving mobility is as old as warfare itself. Knights in the Middle Ages learned the hard way that metal armor has diminishing returns, just as ancient Persian warriors found that light wicker shields offered little resistance to bronze swords.
Modern U.S. troops have battled the same issue under different circumstances — how to protect themselves from small arms fire and improvised explosive devices without impairing their ability to move around the battlefield.
New materials that harness state-of-the-art chemistry could alleviate much of the problem. Before they benefit soldiers in combat, many of those breakthroughs have their genesis as sporting goods protecting athletes and adventurers from bumps and bruises.
D3O, a British impact-protection engineering company, has developed a material that has revolutionized gear worn by athletes. The company gained recognition during the 2006 Winter Olympics for lightweight, flexible and breathable protective materials worn by the U.S. and Canadian ski teams. It has even been used in ballet shoes.
The 30-person company’s success since its founding in 2006 is a prime example of how a single technological innovation can inspire a variety of applications, creating a domino effect of advancement in multiple industries. It is also another example of how the commercial market is providing useful, affordable innovations for the military.
In motorsports and professional football, as in the military, “the trend we are seeing is that if it’s not comfy, people won’t wear it,” Louise Wilson, a D3O spokeswoman, told National Defense. “Hard, bulky body armor has been used in sports and the military for years, but it hinders the wearer’s performance. With something lightweight and flexible, you can run faster [and] move with more agility without compromising on safety.”
The Marine Corps has come under withering fire from critics who argue ballistic body armor requirements have resulted in bulky protective gear that fatigues soldiers and limits mobility. For a Marine, whose job is to storm ashore swiftly to defeat the enemy, that can cause problems.
George Solhan, the Office of Naval Research’s deputy chief researcher for expeditionary maneuver warfare, ripped the Marine Corps’ ballistic requirements for armor at the National Defense Industrial Association’s Expeditionary Warfare Conference last year.
The service requires that its body armor stop a .30-caliber round at point-blank range, which Solhan said was overkill.
“If somebody shoots me that close, I could gut him with a knife,” he said.
Because most combat occurs at a distance, Solhan said requirements should focus on lightweight materials instead of ballistic performance.
Materials like those developed by D3O can solve that problem because they allow lighter armor to provide improved protection by bolstering its shock-absorption capabilities.
Using lightweight D3O Aero — which can be molded to nearly any shape, size and thickness — the company has become the leader in motorcycle protective wear. Now the material is being co-opted by the defense industry in everything from body armor to vehicle doors and better blast-resistant seats.
In its raw state, the material can be manipulated — stretched, mashed and torn. But when hit by a blunt force, its molecules lock together, forming an instantly rigid shock-absorbing barrier. To illustrate, the material feels like dry chewed gum when pulled slowly apart. Wrap it around a person’s finger and smash it with a hammer, and the subject feels nothing.
D3O can now be heat bonded directly to fabric instead of placing foam pads inside pockets sewn into it, allowing for a closer fit and eliminating bulky protective pads. The process was developed for American football uniforms, and the company plans to roll out military and law-enforcement versions this year.
It is not the first time football and the military have joined forces. The Pentagon has teamed with the National Football League in an effort to stem traumatic brain injury (TBI).
The top leaders of both organizations — Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno and NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell — met at the U.S. Military Academy last year to discuss the issue and sign a letter of agreement to continue sharing resources to combat TBI.
The Army and NFL are continuing the dialogue and sharing research, said Odierno. He cited examples of joint efforts at monitoring TBI, including placing special sensors in the helmets of both soldiers and NFL players, which can detect a possible concussion following trauma to the head.
D3O also is being used to create helmet liners for both military and sporting activities, specifically football. The company has partnered with a “major U.S. manufacturer” of football helmets that will integrate its shock-absorbing liner. Plans are to roll out a military-specific version later this year, Wilson said.
Applied to fabric — even in super-thin layers of 1 to 2 millimeters — the D3O protective material creates a textile that itself can protect against impact. The process and the resulting product, called Reactor Fabric, is the first of its kind, Wilson said. DriFire, which produces tactical and fire-resistant clothing for the military, is integrating the technology into its garments. The textile is also being used to create impact-resistant electronics cases.
At least 18 companies that manufacture personal protection and tactical gear, along with 22 sporting goods purveyors, are experimenting with or have already integrated D3O into their products.
Fredericksburg, Va.-based Renegade Armor, a major supplier of tactical protective gear to military and law enforcement customers, is also using D3O in its body armor. By applying a layer of the shock-absorbing material between the armored plate and the wearer’s chest, it further reduces any impact force applied to the vest.
TEK Military Seating is using the material inside the crew and driver seats it builds for tactical vehicles. The seats are installed on everything from mine-clearing Buffalo trucks built by General Dynamics to mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicles and tracked troop carriers. D3O’s materials have been integrated into the seat pad, headrest and inside of the seatbelts on many of TEK models.
D3O is also exploring the possibility of applying its materials to the floors and walls of armored vehicles as an added layer of blast mitigation.