University of Virginia Student Designs New Body Armor

BY Herschel Smith
5 years, 9 months ago

Reader Brett Turner kindly sent the following story our direction.  Regular readers of The Captain’s Journal know that we have harped on the weight of body armor – and in particular, ESAPI plates – in just about every article (on body armor) we have written.  We have strongly recommended government money be spent on designing new and improved ESAPI plates that don’t weigh as much as the current generation of plates.  The total weight of the MTV comes to around 32 pounds.  We have recommended that experts be engaged, from materials engineering to fracture mechanics practitioners.  Now comes a University of Virginia student who has led the effort we recommended, except that there is no government money involved – yet.

The most stalwart medieval knight probably griped about the crippling weight of his shining armor.
The metal’s inflexibility left plenty to complain about as well. And there was its nasty tendency of allowing sharp edges and pointy-tipped projectiles through cracks and creases.

Things haven’t changed much.

The nation’s combat forces continue to deal with these same shortcomings, despite tremendous advancements in modern body armor. U.S. Army Sgt. Jeff O’Dell saw vivid examples of body armor saving American lives during his deployment in Iraq.

The University of Virginia second-year student also knows how Enhanced Small Arms Protective Inserts can restrict movement and fail to stop multiple bullets. The four bulky ceramic plates now in use in protective vests used by American forces are also heavy, bringing the weight of a vest to nearly 30 pounds.

“I was deployed in Iraq as a fire support specialist from August 2005 to December 2006,” said O’Dell, who is serving in the National Guard while attending UVa. “Our armor vest had single ceramic plates in the front, back and on each side.

“The vest has saved the lives of some of my buddies, but having worn it a lot I know it can be improved upon. It’s too heavy, it doesn’t stop multiple rounds and it doesn’t flex.

“The Army has had a lot of issues with the body armor being recalled, and a lot of the troops have been complaining about its effectiveness, weight and so forth. I really think it’s something that needs to be fixed.”

Last September O’Dell seized upon an opportunity to possibly help save countless lives in the future — maybe even his own. As a double major in biomedical engineering and mechanical engineering, he took a Design Discovery class that introduces second-year students to conceptual and practical design work.
The class educates students on how to come up with novel products and ultimately market them. The class is broken into small teams of students who work together on projects they originate.

O’Dell teamed up with Ann Bailey, Adam Rogers and Dan Abebayehu. When the student-soldier proposed the idea of creating a better armor vest the others quickly signed on.

“I had family members in the military so this hit close to home for me,” said Bailey, who is from Elkton. “And I like the idea of working with something that will actually be beneficial to someone.

“This project has been a real opportunity to work on something that will actually make a difference. I also like the fact that we’re at a school with so many resources and where the professors are so willing to help.
“When we were in the research phase we needed to figure out a particular thing, and I went to talk to a professor in the materials science department. He dropped whatever it was he was doing, pulled up a Web site and explained to me exactly what we needed to know.”

The armor vest project quickly became more than an exercise in how to get a passing grade. Inspired by O’Dell, who will likely be deployed to Afghanistan later this year, the team began working feverously on a new design that would eliminate the historic shortcomings of body armor.

A few months ago examples of the students’ new vest were put to the test at H.P. White Lab in Maryland. In the company’s ballistics testing facility, round after armor-piercing round were fired into the vests.

The team’s radically new design proved so successful and groundbreaking that a second round of testing will take place on Thursday. This time Army representatives will be present to evaluate the students’ system firsthand.

“The Army is interested because we’ve come up with a design that offers flexibility and more capability for stopping multiple armor-piercing rounds,” said O’Dell, who was born and raised in Martinsville. “A lot of it has to do with our design, and a lot of it is the material we’re changing.

“When the results came out so well during the first round of testing we made contact with a possible commercialization partner, which is an armor company in Pennsylvania. They got in touch with the Army and set up the testing for later this month.

“We actually came up with a concept for vehicle armor as well. During the first test it was hit by 10, 30-caliber armor-piercing rounds and stopped all 10.”

The new vest presents a classic example of what can result from a well thought-out course that emphasizes creativity and cooperation. O’Dell lauded the fact that the class was structured to give students step-by-step guidance during each stage of the project.

The students were made aware of available resources and professors who were experts in areas that could be helpful. One expert was Haydn N. Wadley, Edgar Starke Professor of Materials Science and Engineering. He gave the four students a crash course in body armor materials and how they work.

William F. Walker continues to guide and mentor the engineering students. He said his main goal in the class was to motivate students to go out and find their own problems to work on.

“I want the students to find something they’re passionate about, and will throw themselves into fully,” said Walker, associate professor of biomedical engineering and electrical and computer engineering at UVa. “Some students will accept the challenge like this team has done, and will go like mad.

“What Jeff and his team members have done is really not in my area of expertise, but the data they’ve gotten in testing so far really speaks for itself. Experts I’ve spoken to who do know this field haven’t seen anything like this before.

When the defense contractors have nothing else to gain because they already have a fat contract and thus no incentive to design something better, a young warrior-student steps into the gap.  What a story.  God bless this effort, and God bless these students.

This information is proprietary, so they will be unwilling to go into too much detail concerning the materials and design specifications.  But we will contact them to see just what we might learn about the effort.  We will be tracking this very closely.

Prior: Body Armor (category)


You are currently reading "University of Virginia Student Designs New Body Armor", entry #2273 on The Captain's Journal.

This article is filed under the category(s) Body Armor and was published February 26th, 2009 by Herschel Smith.

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