Army's future uniform has medical sensors

Friday, May 24, 2002

WASHINGTON -- Within six years, the Army plans to outfit soldiers with a new battle uniform incorporating stronger and lighter armor, a climate-control system, medical sensors and a computer display on the helmet visor.

The new uniform would eliminate the need for rucksacks, distribute the weight of a soldier's gear more evenly on his body and halve the weight each soldier must carry.

"Plus, it looks ominous," said Jean-Louis "Dutch" De Gay, an Army engineer who showed off a prototype of the high-tech uniform at a Pentagon news conference Thursday. The look is as much sci-fi as it is GI Joe -- the helmet, for example, brings to mind a cross between "Robocop" and the storm troopers from "Star Wars."

The features are just as futuristic. Besides deflecting bullets, the helmet includes a global positioning system antenna, video and infrared cameras, a visor with the heads-up display, transmitters to identify the soldier as an American to other fighters and precision weapons, chemical and biological weapons detectors and a gas mask.

Sensors in the uniform will monitor the soldier's heart rate, blood pressure and body temperature, giving readouts to the soldier and to his commander and his unit's medic. That will help prevent soldiers from getting sick from being too hot or cold, and will help give medics a better idea of what's wrong with an ailing fighter before they arrive.

Even the underwear is high-tech. Woven throughout are tiny tubes that carry warm or cold air circulated by the uniform's climate-control system. It's a modification of the system NASA uses in space suits, only circulating air instead of liquid to conserve weight and energy, De Gay said.

While soldiers in Afghanistan have to lug between 92 and 105 pounds of gear with them, the future uniform will cut that weight to about 45 to 50 pounds, De Gay said. The uniform is designed so weight will be distributed around the chest, back and waist, distributing the load more evenly instead of primarily on the shoulders, as backpacks do.

The body armor includes a series of rigid plates on the chest, back and shoulders, made of a composite of Kevlar and other materials, De Gay said. Underneath will be a more flexible, but still bullet-resistant, sheathing to help fill the gaps of the plates, he said.

Army Sgt. Gene Vance Jr. was killed in Afghanistan Sunday by a bullet that penetrated such a gap.

The new Army battle uniforms are the first to be completely redesigned, instead of adding onto or changing various parts of the uniform, said De Gay, who works at the Army's Natick Soldier Center in Massachusetts. The center plans to award a contract by July 4 to finish developing and making the uniforms, and hopes to have the uniforms ready for use in 2008, he said.

Money has been no object -- "there's not a cost bogey on this," De Gay said -- but each uniform should cost about $25,000 to $30,000. ------

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