BAE Systems takes a cue from ironclad beetle to build self-repairing military suspensions

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The incredibly tough exoskeleton of the ironclad beetle allows it to walk away after being stepped on - an attribute BAE Systems wants to emulate with its new suspension system(Credit: Alejandro Santillana, Insects Unlocked - University of Texas)

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Seeking ways to make military vehicles less vulnerable to blast damage, BAE Systems is looking to one of the toughest insects in nature – the frighteningly hard to kill ironclad beetle. The defense contractor is developing a new bendable titanium alloy suspension system that not only does away with springs, but snaps back into shape after taking on landmines.

Based on a quarter century of conflivt experience, engineers have become very adept at armoring up military vehicles against mines, IEDs, and similar nasties. The good news is that modern armor can make these incidents ones to walk away from. The bad news is it's often literally a matter of walking away because, though the passenger's survive, the suspension ends up hopelessly mangled and the vehicle useless until towed back to the shop. This not only ties up other vehicles to conduct rescue operations, but leaves the mission one vehicle short.

What's needed is a vehicle that's more robust over all, so BAE Systems turned to the ironclad beetle inspiration. Ironclads are fungivores native to Texas and South America and they possess one of the hardest exoskeletons of any arthropod. Step on one and it will probably just give a coleopteran shrug and walk away. And if you catch one and want to add it to your collection, find a drill, because it's almost impossible to drive a pin through its body.

BAE wants to emulate such a tough body and undercarriage, but unlike the beetle the company's version doesn't use chitin as its base material, instead turning to a titanium shape-memory alloy of the sort used in "unbreakable" spectacle frames. This alloy was developed by the United States Naval Ordnance Laboratory in the 1960s, when its properties were discovered quite by accident – apparently one of the technical directors applied his pipe lighter to a mangled piece of alloy out of curiosity, only to see the metal suddenly snap back into its original shape. Since then, it's found all manner of applications from eye wear to spacecraft.

The new prototype suspension was built for a competition by British government's Defence, Science and Technology Laboratory for an unmanned Highly Robust Ground Platform. According to BAE Systems in Telford, Shropshire, UK, this is the first time such a titanium alloy has been used to build an entire suspension system. What this means is that it's possible to build a wishbone suspension that can not only pop back into shape after being badly bent in an explosion, but which is flexible enough to do away with the springs entirely, resulting in a simpler design.

BAE engineers say that initial tests of a small-scale prototype have been successful, surviving five increasing powerful explosive attacks. The company is now looking at developing the technology for full-size vehicles and could be in the field within a decade.

"This unique use of memory metals could prove a real game-changer for combat vehicles taking part in operations," says Marcus Potter, Head of Mobility at BAE Systems Land (UK). "Being able to adapt to changing situations is hugely important to maintaining effectiveness, and this application of bendable titanium could give armed forces the required flexibility – and survivability – to complete tasks in challenging areas."

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