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U.S. Army Plans Robotic Mannequin for Chemical Testing

U.S. Army Plans Robotic Mannequin for Chemical Testing

The U.S. Army announced last month that it had awarded a $26.3 million contact to a team of five companies to create a mannequin for real-time chemical exposure testing.

The prime contractor for this award, Kansas City, Mo.-based Midwest Research Institute, will lead development of what the Army calls a first-of-its-kind integrated Individual Protection Ensemble (IPE) Mannequin System. The result, according to MRI, will be a "free-standing, self-balancing robot that simulates human physiology for realistic tests of protective equipment in a controlled environment." Because the suit is testing chemical exposure, there's no way of testing it with a human wearing it. That's where the robot comes in.

The mannequin represents an engineering challenge because it combines chemical, hydraulic, and electrical engineering capabilities, says Bob Barton, MRI's director of engineering, whose background is in chemical engineering. Part of his company's responsibility, he says, is the exchange of data between the systems. These include temperature controls that monitor the "skin" of the robot, a system that simulates sweating, and the actuators and balancing systems of the mannequin itself.

"The data streams get passed to an archiving system that displays in real-time for the operators, with the chemical monitoring system is overlaid on that," Barton says. "We still have to work out some of the details in the preliminary design, but keeping all that data in similar formats and tracking it is going to be a challenge."

The mannequins are being designed to test protective clothing for soldiers. "You need a mannequin that can perform realistic motions to make sure the pieces on the ensemble work together correctly," says Barton. The protective suit includes components such as mask, hood, boots, and upper and lower layers. "We need to test the seals between the items to see whether there's gapping that creates leaks or whether the materials tear easily during these motions."

To measure this, the mannequin will be outfitted with a set of sensors to track chemical exposure. "They have to be small and robust, because you need to be able to decontaminate them," Barton notes.

According to MRI, it will serve as the systems integrator for work done by Boston Dynamics, which is responsible for the design and fabrication of the robotic mannequin, and Measurement Technology Northwest, which is responsible for the mannequin physiology. Two other companies - Smith Carter CUH2A and HHI Corporation - are working on the exposure chamber. The estimated completion date is April of 2011.

The project also represents a design challenge because of the number of subcontractors. "A lot of the design tools that we have are interchangeable," says Barton. "All of the CAD programs produce drawing formats that we can send from one subcontractor to the next." The designs will be stored in a Microsoft SharePoint collaboration portal during the project.

Barton believes that there are applications for this kind of technology beyond warfare. "We could apply this to situations where people have to work in dangerous environment and use protective equipment. Having something that's tested against the actual conditions rather than surrogates would be a benefit to safety."

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