Soldier Design Competition at MIT

Last night, USMA and MIT went head to head in a design competition. The details are here:

It was cool to be with the Cadets and MIT Students  in such a creative environment.  The designes were smart, focused, low cost, and viable.  Not all of them could be deployed as-is, but even those furthest from from field ready had something to contribute to solving the problems that soldiers face in the field.  While there was not a lot of cross talk between competitors, I think the real value of a compeition like this would be the cross breeding of ideas.

Two different teams provided solutions to trying to keep soldiers cool, in order to prevent heat casualties.  In both cases, the teams approached the solution from trying to cool off the head.  The MIT team made “cool pack” inserts that replaced a portion of the pad in the Kevlar Helmet.  THe packs were activated by punching them, starting an endothermic chemical reaction.  The packs in the display room registered 56 degress, well below the 75 degree or so room temperature.  The problems with the design were that the packs didn’t last long enough, and the helmet had to be removed in order to replace the pads.  That Cadet team created an insert that was composed primarily of lightweight aluminum (There should be another I in that word, dammit!) that acted as a heat conductor.  Small cartridges  at the back of the helmet made of sponges activated the system by evaporation.  The problems with this design were the requirement for low ambient humidity (not a problem in Iraq) and the weight of the solution.  However, What occurred to me is that you could combine the two solutions, use the cold pack to power the conductor, and get the best of both worlds.  I suspect the final design will be somewhere along those lines.

One MIT student had done a stellar job with a wearable Solar energy based electricity generator.  He used fragile solar cells that converted 20% of the sunlight that contacted them, providing 18 Watts of power, just under the 20 Watt target.  The innovative part of his research was in the attempt to make the panels rugged enough to survive the beating soldiers put on them.  Another team of Cadets made a strobe light that was only visible through the latest versions of night vision devices.  THe idea was that older versions had fallen into the hands of the enemy.  The strobe was fragile, and one point they stated that was grounds for further research was making it more durable.  The materials work of the Solar panel project would be a great starting point.

Many of the other projects were wprthy of note:

  • a firewall that was capable of blocking Skype
  • A two battery UPS system for the radios, also field chargeable.
  • A spring and  cable based system designed to pull a HMMWV  turret gunner back into the vehicle in case it is about to flip.
  • A Wireless network for a minefield, allowing the friendly forces to turn off the mines to minimize friendly casualties and collateral damage
  • A “Spy Rock”
  • Two different position systems based on things like gyros, accelerometers, and cheap wireless transceivers
  • A radio controlled dirigible with autopilot capable of carrying a 3 pound payload.

The proejcts were judged by a panel with members from industry, academia, and the military.  It was especially good to see two Command Sergents Major in the panel, with a solid understanding of the harsh reality of the life of the soldiers.  One was the CSM of the Infantry School at Fort Benning.  I can’t think of anyone better equipped to say “Good Idea”, “That is too heavy”, or to ask the question “Is that addressing the right problem.”

There were six prizes donated by several  companies, each of several thousand dollars.  The USMA team won the highest award and the overall trophy.  I was really impressed by the creativity and ingenuity of the students, and the quality of the design process they employed.

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