DARPA seeks lighter, more effective military biochem protection suits
DARPA has awarded contracts to FLIR Systems, Leidos, and Charles River Analytics to develop new kit to protect soldiers and responders against chemical and biological (CB) threats. The Personalized Protective Biosystem (PPB) program seeks to produce improved personal protective equipment (PPE) suits that are lighter, more comfortable, and able to deal with a wider variety of hazards.
As anyone who has participated in or watched footage of a major NATO military exercise knows, running about in standard Nuclear, Biological and Chemical (NBC) suits is one of the most unpleasant aspects of a soldier's job.
These suits are made out of either an impermeable rubber-like material with vents to prevent condensation, or a breathable material infused with activated charcoal. Either way, they're designed to fit over the soldier's regular uniform and, along with a gas mask, allow him or her to fight or carry out general duties for days at a time, while protecting against radioactive, chemical, or biological weapon threats.
Unfortunately, NBC suits are very uncomfortable, heavy, and are becoming less able to handle emerging chemical or biological threats. To counter this, DARPA wants the contracted companies to develop new lightweight materials and molecular technologies that can handle a broad spectrum of threats on demand for long periods.
This will not only involve a protective suit, but also ways to specifically defend the parts of the human body that interact directly with the environment, including the skin, eyes, and airway. In addition, the new equipment will work with commensal organisms, that is, organisms naturally found on the skin or in the body that help to protect it against infections and other threats.
The five-year PPB program will operate in two technical areas, or TAs. TA1 will work to protect the soldier by means of a 100-percent effective barrier against 10 CB agents. TA2 will aim at neutralizing threats to living tissue barriers, like the skin or eyes, with countermeasures that can be configured to meet specific threats.
"PPB aims to address PPE limitations, including threat-specific vulnerabilities, thermal/logistical burdens, and potential exposure risks," says Eric Van Gieson, PPB program manager. "The capability to provide unburdened CB protection will be invaluable in maximizing time on target, providing operational flexibility, extending mission duration, and enabling operations in austere environments, regardless of the threat.
"Successful PPB technologies have the potential to revolutionize how the military and public health communities perform in unpredictable threat environments, while also offering prophylactic and therapeutic solutions to known and emerging infectious diseases."