Super Soldiers

New materials and technologies could boost the mobility and safety of U.S. troops

The U.S. Army wants to turn G.I. Joes and Janes into superheroes right out of Hollywood. In the 1987 film Predator, Arnold Schwarzenegger played an Army commando battling an alien in a suit that rendered it invisible. The film got mixed reviews, but the Army hopes its so-called Future Warrior outfit will be a smash on the battlefield. "With a uniform like Predator's, our soldiers would really have a lopsided advantage," says Jean-Louis "Dutch" De Gay, a systems engineer at the Army's Soldier Systems Center in Natick, Mass.

The black battle garb planned for the late 2010s looks scary enough when you can see it, but invisible soldiers would be a lot scarier. No joke. Scientists at DuPont (DD ) Co. are already hunting for ways to manipulate light so soldiers could appear to disappear. And if that doesn't pan out, EIC Laboratories Inc. in Norwood, Mass., is working on "electrochromic camouflage" -- a chameleon fabric that would change colors instantly to blend in with its surroundings.

Research on such concealment methods is classified. However, at the new Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, scientists are free to talk about the combat gear they're designing. And soldiers aren't the only ones they aim to help. Their work also could help protect firefighters, police officers, and other emergency responders -- with self-administering tourniquets, lightweight body armor, and artificial muscles. MIT President Charles M. Vest didn't want to "get tangled up in classified research," so he insisted that all developments spawned on campus be available to industry as well as the military.

The MIT center, which opened in late May, was launched with a $50 million, five-year grant from the Army. The budget was doubled by matching funds from MIT and a dozen industrial partners, including Raytheon, Dow Corning, and DuPont. The companies signed up to tap MIT's expertise in nanotechnology -- creating new materials and devices molecule by molecule, instead of fabricating them from bulk materials. Materials engineered with such ingredients as carbon nanotubes can have properties that are otherwise impossible to achieve. As a result, says De Gay, "science fiction is rapidly becoming reality -- and that could change forever the way wars are fought."

One concept for "smart" body armor would weave thin pads or even cloth from fibers that can sense the impact of a bullet or shrapnel and automatically stiffen, becoming even more impenetrable than the cumbersome ceramic-plate armor troops wear now. Another major goal is cloth that eliminates the need for ungainly biochemical-warfare suits. Instead, regular uniform fabric may sport nano-size umbrellas that open to seal the cloth's pores, making it impervious to airborn chemicals and pathogens.

In both cases, a key objective is to take a load off soldiers' backs. Today, they lug 60 pounds or more into battle, depending upon which weapon they carry, and the so-called marching load is almost twice as heavy. In five years, the Army wants to trim the combat load to 40 pounds, and then to 15 pounds with the Future Warrior outfit. MIT's Vest predicts that armored vests, which weigh 28 pounds now, will end up "at around eight pounds, maybe even five."

Artificial muscles that could enable soldiers to leap tall walls, if not buildings, are in the works, too. One candidate is made from polypyrrole. It flexes when jolted by electricity, then relaxes when the juice is turned off. So far, though, its reactions are much too slow.

Even with the best armor, wounds are inevitable. So when a soldier is hit in an arm or leg, special fibers in the uniform would constrict into a tourniquet. This will be a real life-saver, because half of all battlefeild deaths are due to massive blood loss before wounded soldiers can be treated. In addition, sensors would provide the soldier's vital signs and location to medics via radio. Until the Future Warrior garment is ready, soldiers will wear an adhesive chest patch fitted with sensors and a tiny radio. It's being developed by MIT partner CIMIT (Center for Integration of Medicine & Innovative Technology) in Cambridge, Mass.

To satisfy its industrial partners and avoid chewing up money needlessly, the new institute will be "run on a business model, with regular milestone reviews," says Edwin L. "Ned" Thomas, the MIT materials-science professor tapped as its head. It will have a staff of 40 MIT scientists from eight departments, plus 100-odd graduate students and visiting researchers from the Army and industry.

Thomas admits that some wish-list items may never materialize. But that's okay -- the idea is to infuse army research with new thinking. So the Pentagon plans to announce, starting in August, more research centers at other universities, focused on such areas as biotechnology and detecting landmines. In the same spirit, to supplement its $1.2 billion research effort, the Army will funnel $25 million to small, innovative companies that probably never dreamed of getting a Pentagon contract. The fund's top priority? Finding better ways to generate and store power for the Army's high-tech gadgets. It's easy to see why: A brigade of 1,500 troops goes through 120 tons of batteries a year. And that's before they hit their invisibility buttons.

By Otis Port in Cambridge, Mass.

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