HomeNewsArticle Display

Flexing in the line of fire: Lightweight, flexible body armor for the future force

A new type of flexible body armor developed through a collaboration between the Air Force and Naval Research Laboratories is 50 percent lighter than current body armor. The design makes the use of a ceramic ball matrix encapsulated in foam material, which is then backed with multiple layers of polyethylene sheets. (U.S. Air Force photo by Marisa Novobilski/released)

A new type of flexible body armor developed through a collaborative effort between the Air Force and the Naval Research Laboratory is 50 percent lighter than current body armor. The design makes the use of a ceramic ball matrix encapsulated in foam material, which is then backed with multiple layers of polyethylene sheets. (U.S. Air Force photo/Marisa Novobilski)

WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio (AFNS) -- In the line of fire, protective body armor plays a critical role in survival. Hard-plated, rigid and heavy, today’s National Institute of Justice Type IV body armor -- the kind that protects warfighters against armor piercing bullets -- defends the wearer, but adds weight and bulk that a fast-moving operator could do without.

Engineers at the Air Force Research Laboratory are working to change this.

“Battlefield airmen, special operations forces, pararescue troops … all of these individuals are trying to move fast and fit in tight areas, but they have this rigid, bulky armor to wear,” said 1st Lt. Jason Goins, a materials research engineer in the Materials and Manufacturing Directorate at AFRL. “You can move faster and work more efficiently if you have something that moves and flexes with you.”

Goins, along with fellow researchers 1st Lt. Lance Wilhelm and 2nd Lt. Mathew Couch, were approached by special operations forces who asked if they could develop armor that is lighter and more flexible, but still able to protect them in the field. If the team could develop something that could be worn undetectable under clothing, it would be even better.

Through a collaboration with the Naval Research Laboratory and the Air Force Special Operations Command, working through the directorate’s Junior Force Warfighter Operations AFRL program (JFWORX), which provides developmental opportunities for junior members of AFRL to lead and manage projects, the team delivered the special operator’s requests—and vest prototypes that can do much more.

“These are game-changers,” Goins said. “Our flexible body armor is 50 percent lighter than current models and much thinner. Not only that, the armor can conform to both male and female body types, be dropped and still used, and protects against multiple hits. There’s nothing like this out there."

Acting as the technical representatives for the project, the team discovered research that was started by Dr. Ray Gamache at the Naval Research Laboratory, but set aside due to funding. They evaluated the prior Navy research and commercially-available NIJ Type IV body armor to determine the need compared to current market products. After securing funding, the team worked with the Navy researchers to develop armor prototypes, which were then tested in the laboratory environment.

The new armor plate uses a ceramic ball matrix encapsulated in foam material, which is then backed with multiple layers of polyethylene sheets. Traditional Type IV armor plates, by contrast, are typically made from a solid steel or ceramic plate, weighing more than ten pounds per square foot and are unable to resist impact beyond a single round.

The game-changing armor not only provides light-weight protection, but is also able to maintain performance protection even after multiple rounds of live fire laboratory testing.

Wilhelm said, “When we first showed this to the battlefield airmen, they were shocked. Many said that there was no way that it could stop a bullet. But, we have laboratory proof that it can."

Another benefit of the new armor is its ability to conform to multiple body shapes and sizes. This is particularly significant with the move towards women in combat roles.

“Women have typically had difficulties finding armor that fits comfortably and protects,” Couch said. “This will help meet the growing need.”

The flexible body armor recently finished a first round of successful live fire laboratory testing. The team is now overseeing work by the Naval Postgraduate School to ensure the materials and manufacturing processes are consistent and reliable. They are also investigating other materials that may potentially work even better than the ceramic-foam combination.

According to Goins, the armor has about eight more months of research and ballistic testing, followed by a year-long development of the manufacturing capabilities before it will be ready for the market. At most, he’s hoping to have this to the warfighter in the next year or two.

A second project for concealable body armor, emerging from the same special operations request, is currently on hold due to funding. This armor would benefit individuals in high-risk environments who need to work undercover or in secret but still protect themselves from Type IV armor-piercing rounds.

Through the use of a 3-D scanner to create a body mold and by constructing a vest of multiple hexagonal plates, the team successfully demonstrated a proof-of-concept vest for concealability. However, the tiny gaps between hexagons concern those who want to be 100 percent covered, though others are content with some protection risk versus none at all.

“We hope to continue work on that vest in the future,” Goins said. “However, right now our focus is on getting the flexible armor to the market.”

Overall, Goins stressed that this was a fantastic developmental opportunity for himself as well as the JFWORX team.

“I learned so much over the past year. It’s fun to work on a project where you can see the tangible benefits of your work,” he said. “This will really benefit the warfighter.”

Engage

Facebook Twitter
RT @CENTCOM: A French Rafale conducts nighttime air refueling with a U.S. Air Force KC-10 Extender assigned to the 380th Air Expeditionary…
RT @DeptofDefense: Jumping from a plane becomes a big step toward friendship. 301 soldiers and airmen from @USArmyReserve, @usairforce, and…
Explosive Disposal Ordnance (EOD) Airmen are often assigned to some of the most dangerous missions and perform tact… https://t.co/xYc9Ip5psn
Start this year by supporting your #Airmen in their pursuit of #resiliency. Learn about common triggers of invisibl… https://t.co/6gJSfJKvcK
RT @OHNationalGuard: The @180thFW hosted members of the Nigerian Air Force recently Officers visited the 180FW in search of #bestpractice
RT @HiAirGuard: Airmen from 154th Security Forces Squadron became first responders during a Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear…
RT @US_SOCEUR: U.S. #airmen assigned to the 352d Special Operations Wing perform maintenance on a CV-22B #Osprey aircraft in Szolnok, #Hung
RT @HQ_AFMC: The @AFResearchLab s X-60A program achieved a key developmental #milestone with the completion of integrated vehicle propulsio…
RT @DeptofDefense: If you want to get there as fast as possible, don’t stop for gas. ⛽ That’s why the @usairforce relies on airmen like Tec…
RT @DeptofDefense: Press ▶️ to learn more about @USAFCENT, the command that provides air & space warfighting capabilities to help defeat v…
Airmen with the Puerto Rico Air National Guard provide support at the “tent cities” to support Task Force South and… https://t.co/zg2yT0LqpS
Even the most advanced aircraft in history requires extensive maintenance performed by Airmen on the ground to kee… https://t.co/Kpv8JlzYIc
RT @AirMobilityCmd: Throwback Thursday and #TankerThirstThursday are the same game. Throwing it back to last month when a KC-135 Stratotank…
If you thought the C-5M Super Galaxy was cool before, wait until you hear @RichardHammond describe it and its capab… https://t.co/jbYbdyHx5q
Air National Guardsmen from @105AW are on the ground in Puerto Rico with their counterpart, @PRNationalGuard, provi… https://t.co/ZwzhCEpWY4
RT @HAFB: Join us for the Hill Air Force Base 80th Anniversary Celebration from 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Jan. 18 at the Hill Aerospace Museum! A nu…
Ranges are crucial to the training and readiness of our warfighters. Get an inside look at how they prepare to figh… https://t.co/i5CnbpBGAw
.@cmsaf18 and his wingman, Senior Enlisted Advisor to Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Chief Master Sergeant… https://t.co/UD69jCjHPz
#AirForce is always looking for ways to improve processes and patient health care is no different. @JBSA_Official h… https://t.co/ysEFjoXYCE
RT @USAF_ACC: You know what day it is. #WarthogWednesday! 🐗👏 #DYK the weapon on the #A10Thunderbolt II is a 30 millimeter GAU-8 and is des…