In the 21st century, soldiers need more than a good set of field armor to do their jobs. They also need versatile chemical-biological suits, or chembio suits. Resembling camouflage-covered versions of Hollywood hazmat suits, real-life chembio suits tend to be bulky, uncomfortable, and awkward to move around in.
That's a small price to say for not having your lungs liquefy from an unknown chemical agent, many would say, but the U.S. Military thinks it can do better. To that end, the Chemical and Biological Defense division within the Department of Defense is launching a contest with a $250,000 prize, looking for ideas on how to improve the chembio suit from fashion designers, material scientists, researchers, and students.
According to the contest's official website, "the current chemical biological suit's burden, weight, and bulkiness restrict the warfighter's agility, range of motion, and maneuverability necessary to conduct their duties." What the military wants to see are innovative ideas and designs that will allow soldiers to move more quickly and naturally, "allowing the warfighter to complete all relevant tasks in a fast and comfortable manner," without getting tired from putting the ensemble on.
Another design problem the Department of Defense wants to solve is heat management. Current suits are extremely unpleasant to wear, because they're too warm and don't have good ventilation. In addition, the military is putting out a special call for designs that improve the way suit components fit together, such as a face mask helmet, or the way a glove or boot joins at the sleeve. "The ultimate goal is to relieve any burdens and hazards to the warfighter and improve operational capabilities in combating chemical and biological wartime threats," the Chembio Challenge states. Those who submit a winning idea have the opportunity to cash in big, with awards ranging from $5,000 all the way to $150,000.
The judges for the contest come from a wide range of disciplines, hinting at its ambitions. Along with two officials from the Department of Defense's Chemical and Biological Defense division, there are three additional judges from outside the government: Matthew Trexler, director of technology validation at Under Armour; Mark Sunderland, a professor of textile engineering at Philadelphia University and chief executive officer of Boathouse, and David Strum, president of Velocity Systems, a military body armor company. It's a meeting of the minds of the tech, fashion, and engineering worlds, which is something the Department of Defense and MIT have been doing a lot of lately, thanks to a recent $317 million partnership.
While the contest has just started, this is just the latest in a number of U.S. government design competitions, ranging from NASA's ongoing efforts to crowdsource new types of shuttles, satellites, and habitats to the U.S. Department of Energy's contests for designing zero energy homes. It's an interesting trend. The rule of thumb for the U.S. government seems to increasingly be, if you can't contract a design solution, crowdsource it instead.