NATICK, Mass. — In their quest for better helmet technologies to keep Soldiers and Marines safe on the battlefield, researchers at Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center here are making a “HEaDS-UP” play.
Helmet Electronics and Display System-Upgradeable Protection, or HEaDS-UP, has been a four-year effort at Natick to provide mounted and dismounted troops with a more fully integrated headgear system. HEaDS-UP has focused on developing a technical data package of design options and tradeoffs to build a modular, integrated headgear system. Some of these technologies include: improved ballistic materials; non-ballistic impact liner materials and designs; see-through and projected heads-up display technologies; better eye, face and hearing protection; and communications.
Two modular headgear concept designs emerged from the process. They will be officially unveiled in October during a demonstration at Fort Benning’s (Ga.) Maneuver Battle Lab, said Don Lee, project engineer in the Headgear Thrust Area of Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center, or NSRDEC.
“We’ll have mounted and dismounted Soldiers wear the two different concepts, performing a variety of tasks,” Lee said. “The event will be a VIP demo of Soldiers conducting training operations at mission speed using the helmet concepts.”
According to Lee, the advances resulted from the collaboration between NSRDEC and the Army Research Laboratory. Quarterly meetings kept dozens of involved personnel on the same page.
“The program was very successful due to the collaborative support from the different agencies,” Lee said. “Without that collaboration and support, it would have made the program more challenging.”
Lee said that the program looked at a variety of technologies.
“It was mostly like an 80-20 split — 80 percent material solution, 20 percent impact on the Soldier,” said Lee, “kind of setting the stage for the next evolution of headgear protection, which will look to swap that, doing more 80 percent impact on the Soldier and 20 percent material solution.”
The modular prototypes were designed to allow warfighters to adapt the headgear to the mission and to work harmoniously “with other existing, fielded technologies — your body armor, your [hydration pack], your protective eyewear, and then being able to accomplish common skills and tasks — getting up, getting in a prone position, entering a vehicle, exiting the vehicle, sighting a weapon, and stuff like that,” Lee said. “We’ve done some cognitive studies, as well, looking at head-mounted displays, see-through displays, the integration factor of the display.”
Mounted and dismounted Soldiers have already worn the prototypes in “human factors evaluations,” from which data were collected, analyzed and applied.
“We were able to integrate the concepts during their normal training scenarios, and then following their training event, get feedback from them,” Lee said. “It was quite overwhelming, the response [we] received that every Soldier that used these systems liked the prototype systems over their currently fielded system. So whether it was an [Army Combat Helmet] or a [Combat Vehicle Crewman helmet], they all like the prototypes over them.”
Lee predicted that Soldiers will embrace the modular platform, from which parts can be added or removed in seconds.
“Being able to don that [mandible and visor] protection when needed or being able to remove it when not needed is the big ‘wow’ factor,” he added.
The mandible and visor provide fragmentation protection for the face, Lee said.
“Going by a recent [Joint Trauma Analysis and Prevention of Injury in Combat] report, of all the injuries to the head, 72 percent are to the face,” Lee said. “So that shows a technology gap there.
“Soldiers wear the [ballistic] eyewear, but everything outside the eyewear is open. This will be the biggest advantage to the Soldier.”
Vehicle crew members, in particular, should appreciate the headgear.
“One of the things I hoped to do with this program was reduce the logistic footprint of combat helmets for ground Soldiers,” Lee said. “Right now, mounted Soldiers have two helmets. They have their Combat Vehicle Crewman helmet and they have their Advanced Combat Helmet. So, if they dismount from the vehicle, they’re supposed to swap helmets.
“I think we’ve proven through our program that there can be one helmet for both mounted and dismounted Soldiers, which, I think, is a big deal. I think the program’s proven that a one-helmet system for ground Soldiers, whether they’re mounted or dismounted, can exist.”
Crew members looking out hatches discovered an unexpected benefit during evaluations.
“When the Soldiers wore the prototype systems with the visor and mandible,” said Lee, “it was the first time that they weren’t eating sand and dust and rocks going down the road.”
Ultimately, the program data will be transferred to Program Executive Office Soldier and the Marine Corps for decisions about what technologies should be fielded.
“We’ve come up with tradeoffs, ideas, designs that the Soldier will benefit from in the end,” Lee said. “When these technologies impact the Soldier in a positive way, that’s really the reward at the end of the day.”