As the U.S. Special Forces unit approaches the enemy compound, a sentry shouts an alarm and the soldiers duck beneath a hail of gunfire. The point man drops to the ground and stretches a flap of his battle suit in front of him; with the push of a button it hardens into an instant shield. Two commandos move left, away from the forest cover into a rocky outcropping. As they move, the browns and greens of their camouflage change to shades of gray. Two move right, but one man is hit in the leg. Immediately, sensors relay information about his injury and location to field headquarters, where doctors instruct his suit to administer painkillers, apply pressure to the wound, and harden into a cast around his leg. Sensors tell HQ which soldier is closest to the wounded man; new orders and the target’s position appear on the rescuer’s heads-up display. To reach his comrade, the soldier must cross 20 feet of open ground-which he does with a single leap through the air.
That’s the sci-fi scenario the U.S. Army has charged the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to make real. The Army last week chose MIT for a new $50 million research center, with the goal of creating the uniform of the future. The center, called the Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies, will develop new materials that industrial partners-including DuPont, Raytheon and two Boston hospitals-will integrate into futuristic battle suits.
If this all sounds more Starship Troopers than Platoon, that’s because the Army is thinking long term, says Ned Thomas, professor of materials engineering and director of the new center. “The picture is very futuristic, ten years out,” he says, but adds that many of the pieces are already being developed at MIT-including shape-memory alloys to enhance soldiers’ strength, advanced sensors to improve their awareness, and microphotonic materials to change their appearance. The center will combine research efforts from nine departments in the schools of engineering, science and architecture and planning. In total, 150 people, including 35 MIT professors, will staff the institute, the single largest defense effort on MIT’s Cambridge campus.
The center’s goal, Thomas says, will be to increase the “protection and survivability” of U.S. soldiers with new technologies. Research at the center will target six priorities: threat detection, threat neutralization, automated medical treatment, concealment, enhanced human performance and reduced logistical footprint.
The last priority is especially important, Thomas said, to a fighting force whose standard-issue gear now weighs upwards of 50 kilograms (Special Forces may carry twice that). “There’s no point to designing this suit if it weighs 400 kilos and takes a 50 kilowatt generator to run,” Thomas said, adding that his goal was to reduce the load to that carried by Roman legionnaires: 20 kilograms.
The new Institute will give new focus to materials research already underway at the university, including research by bioengineering professor Ian Hunter into artificial muscles (See “Artificial Muscles Gain Strength”). The muscle-actually a polymer called polypyrrole-is activated by electricity: when a current is applied, the polymer’s accordion-shaped molecules stretch out like human muscles; when the current stops, the polymer contracts. Incorporated into a battle suit, the material could store energy generated by walking, and release it in a super-leap or other feat of strength.
And the suit won’t just leap buildings in a single bound, Thomas says, it will stop-or at least slow-bullets. That’s the promise of ferromagnetic materials research by professor Sam Allen and senior scientist Robert O’Handley. Certain liquids called ferromagnetic fluids change properties, including density, in the presence of an electromagnetic field. A battle suit that contains a similar layer of ferromagnetic fluid capsules could harden into a temporary shield, Thomas says, adding that the same technology could also harden regions of a wounded soldier’s suit into a splint or compress. “Chain mail, something that King Arthur’s knights wore, is now available on a molecular level,” he says.
Although more than a decade will pass before super-suits make U.S. soldiers stronger, smarter and perhaps even invisible, the research at the Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies will pay off sooner for the civilian world. Ferromagnetic materials already are used to reduce vibration in engines; other commercial use will come in stronger materials and novel microphotonic devices. And ultimately, Thomas says, the same suits that power super-soldiers will protect firefighters and other emergency personnel.
“If the firefighters who went into the World Trade Center had this kind of equipment, and you knew where each of them was, imagine the difference that could make,” he says.