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Cover Story

Next-Gen Body Armor

Computers and an innovative program commissioned by Scotland Yard lead the way in trying to more accurately measure the effects of stabbing and blunt trauma on the human body. Work may lead eventually to improved vests for officers around the world.

November 01, 1999  |  by Patrick Hook

Advanced computer programming, combined with materials developed specifically for military defense applications, is leading the way toward the development of the next generation of body armor for law enforcement officers.

Commissioned by Scotland Yard, the United Kingdom's Defence Evaluation and Research Agency (DERA), based in Farnborough, Hampshire, is using computer technologies to study human stabbing actions on synthetic skin material. The combination of technologies is designed to mimic the reaction of the human body to a deadly assault and record those effects in the search for an efficient and effective armor for police officers.

The new research, which is expected to lead to substantially higher levels of protection against the effects of blunt trauma, as well as knife and gunshot penetration, has for the first time, provided detailed scientific information on the levels of threat posed.

Using recently developed synthetic human tissue materials, defense scientists have built a lifelike dummy capable of reacting to body blows in the same way as the real victims of assault. Meanwhile, other scientists, also based at DERA, have designed equipment that, with the help of computer analysis, simulates knife attacks in "virtual reality," as a first step in understanding this extremely complicated threat.

Problematic Knife Attacks

Knife attacks, unlike other forms of assault, present a wide range of difficulties, including the sharpness and width of the blade, the force applied, the direction of travel and the weight behind the initial thrust, all of which will vary from one attack to another. With every blow to the body, shock waves are set up which, whether or not the knife penetrates  the armor, are potentially fatal. The recognition of these difficulties, coupled with the concern of senior police officers and others about what they see as the inadequacies of the current test methods for body armor, has led to the present request for the military's help.

"Body armor in the United Kingdom is, at the moment, tested by having a weighted knife dropped on it, fired at it or swung at it on the end of a metal arm," said a source within the industry who preferred not to be named. "The problem is that none of these test comes close to replicating real life. Nor can they tell us anything about the absorption properties needed in a vest to protect human against the potentially fatal effects of blunt trauma."

This somewhat pessimistic view is not, however, universally held. There are some, like Dr. Mike Taylor, Director of Technology Development at Scotland Yard, who believe that these methods can provide a valid starting point in body armor testing from which further progress can be made. Within this view, technology convergence is now making it possible to develop new testing procedures at the same time that new lightweight substances, originally conceived for the defense market, are being produced.

"From my previous work in the area of defense I was aware of DERA's research program and of the new composite laminates that were evolving for use in the aerospace industry," said Taylor. "It occurred to me that many of the properties exhibited by the new materials were exactly what we were looking for in our body armor.

"What (London) police officers now have in the way of protection is the very best that is currently available but it can be improved by the use of advanced materials and advanced testing procedures. And this is exactly why we have approached the military for help."

The Threat Defined

But before assistance could be given, the scientist had to understand the parameters of the threat being faced by officers on the street. Research in America and elsewhere has tended to concentrate on the levels of threat posed by ballistics, particularly those faced by soldiers on the field of battle. Little or no data was available to assess attacks by a pointed instrument, while still less was known about the blunt trauma effect on the human body, resulting from a high impact blow.

Simply providing an armor that prevented penetration by a pointed instrument or bullet or explosive charge would not deal with the effect of the shock waves caused by the striking force of an object. Blunt trauma was and continues to be the cause of grave concern.

"Just firing a bullet or swinging a knife at a piece of armor and seeing whether it has penetrated or not, does not prove the effectiveness of the armor," said a DERA research scientist. "Even if the projectile does not penetrate, the effect of the blunt trauma might still kill or injure the victim."

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