GPS-navigated parachute systems, anti-flammable suits, and metal backpacks that reduce weight were on display as curious people milled by, prodding samples and giddily discussing the new technology.
But this was no science fiction convention, or James Bond prop exhibit. These are common research products designed to aid the US Army, developed right here in Natick.
Legislators, military personnel, and members of the general public gathered at the State House on Wednesday to both learn about and pay homage to the Natick Soldier Systems Center, the only operating US Army base in New England.
The Natick Soldier Systems Center, open since the 1950s, conducts research and development on anything that touches a soldier’s life while on duty, such as clothing, food, and supply needs. US Secretary of the Army John McHugh recently praised the center after a first-time visit, touting the site as “enduring” and “valuable.”
Past achievements that the Natick lab researchers boast include Tang, the orange-flavored drink that scientists helped develop for NASA astronauts, bullet-proof vests, and GPS systems, said John Harlow, chief of the center’s public affairs.
At the State House, scientists were on-hand to explain current research, including precise air-dropping GPS systems for food delivery; food that can not only survive being dropped from the sky, but that also tastes good; smart fabrics that are non-flammable and water-resistant; and a metal backpack augmentation system that can hold up to 300 pounds of supplies without straining the wearer.
A legislative panel gathered to tout the center’s success at the event, citing technology research that make soldiers safer and economic value that provides almost 2,000 jobs.
Lt. Governor Tim Murray spoke of the importance of the research labs, and said he knew firsthand that Governor Deval Patrick agreed.
“This is important – what’s displayed here saves lives,” Murray said. “It protects men and women who serve in some of the most treacherous conditions imaginable.”
State Sen. Karen Spika, an Ashland Democrat, described the center as one of Massachusetts’ “greatest strengths” and defined its economic and educational importance.
“They have access to the best and world-renowned universities, and high caliber research facilities and hospitals,” Spilka said. “They work with cutting edge private technology companies, and also partner with many schools in region, not only using them as helpers but turning kids on to the STEM education area – science, technology, engineering, a math.
“It’s a partnership we need to ensure not only stays in Massachusetts, but grows in Massachusetts,” she said.
The Natick center paid over $73 million during fiscal year 2008 to 2010 in state contracts and grants, federal lab contracts, facility support, worker salaries, and research fellowships, according to posters on display.
Rep. David Linsky, a Natick Democrat, said that when President Barack Obama visited troops in Afghanistan earlier this week, the soldiers were all using items first developed at the Natick labs.
“It’s a really special place, a unique facility that serves both military and civilian applications,” Linsky said.
Brigadier General John J. McGuiness said cutting-edge research done in Natick helped instill confidence in soldiers and their loved ones that they would return home safely.
“There is no other place in the US that provides the Army and nation a one-stop shop to cover a wealth of talent in all those areas,” McGuiness said.
During the exhibition, Natick center officials said that while the labs are technically Army-based, they still emphasized the importance of developing technology that can be used in other service industries – the Navy, Marines, Air Force, Special Operations, State Police, local police, and firefighting units, as well as any potential commercial companies, said David Audet, a team leader for soldier mobility and mission enhancement.
He said that one of the technologies he helped work on – the HULC personal augmentation system – will help other occupations across the state.
The metal backpack has components that travel down to the ground, where a soldier can step into footholders connected to the system. The battery-operated HULC helps redistribute up to 200 pounds of weight so soldiers can carry supplies without injury.
The typical soldier’s backpack currently weighs between 60 and 80 pounds, and special forces can typically carry up to 135 pounds, Audet said.
“It’s an incredible amount of weight,” Audet said. “We try to take a load off them, so they can be fresher when they get to where they need to go or when performing tasks.”
Jeff Lenti, a Massachusetts state trooper, said the HULC would help special operations teams complete missions, including unexpected occupations, like medical workers.
“We’ve got our medics on team, and they have a 40 to 50 pound medical bag,” Lenti said. “That takes a toll on you. This helps reduce that weight.”
The HULC system is being developed in collaboration with Lockheed Martin, a private global security, aerospace, and information technology company headquartered in Maryland – a testament to the collaboration between the Natick labs and private businesses.
Massachusetts is second in the country for the amount of research and development projects the military gives to small businesses, behind only California, said Cathryn Polito, supplemental programs manager at the Natick center.
The Department of Defense funds $1.2 billion for all projects countrywide, Polito said.
However, some technology is developed solely on-base in Natick. Peggy Auerbach, a textile technologist there, tests fabric swatches and uniforms to not only achieve maximum non-flammability, but also to design uniforms to keep the wearers from obtaining serious burns.
She researches materials in Natick’s newest building, which was commissioned in 2004 and started operating in December 2007.
Holding up test swatches of three different fabrics with the same digital-style camouflage print, Auerbach showed how the current uniform made of 50 percent cotton – worn by soldiers on duty who are in America – melt and drip inward easily, providing a high burn risk for the wearer.
However, Auerbach has helped developed two other uniforms – one for ground soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq, and one for Air Force fighters there – that resist flames better than the current one.
The ground soldier uniform, made mostly of rayon, is designed to balloon outwards – away from the wearer’s skin – to provide an additional layer of safety against burning the skin.
While the old cotton uniform breathes better and is more comfortable than the new ground soldier’s uniform, Auerbach said, the Air Force uniform is the stiffest of all three, but provides better flammability protection in its mainly Nomex material.
Biochemists have also worked with uniform material to make it impermeable to outside liquids, such as rain or chemical bomb containments, but still allow soldiers to sweat to avoid heat exhaustion, said Megan Hoey, a chemical engineer at the Natick center.
“You want your water vapor to go through, but not the nasty stuff,” Hoey said. “When you think of that, you think of the big Hazmat suits, but we can’t have soldiers running around on the ground in those.”
Hoey said the team uses small black carbon balls, similar to those found in Brita water filters, and Saran wrap-type material, to line uniform fabric, allowing soldiers to sweat comfortably while resisting outside liquids.
Another important advance Natick center teams are researching is how to precisely airdrop supplies on rugged Middle Eastern terrain to troops serving there, said Richard Benney, a division leader in aerial delivery equipment.
All of the troops’ supplies are currently being parachuted in, since roads either do not exist in Afghanistan or Iraq, or because convoys travelling at ground level increasingly put soldiers’ lives at risk, Benney said.
“There’s less exposure to snipers,” he said, adding that last year alone, over 85 million pounds of supplies were delivered via parachute. “An estimated 200 lives were saved last year due to airdrops.”
Benney said researchers have perfected GPS technology to airdrop supplies as far as five miles high and 20 miles away, noting that packages are arriving “almost on the dime.”
However, the division will continue developing airdrop systems that are cheaper, more accurate, and can hold more weight, Benney said.
As airdrops are becoming more advanced, so are the supplies the US flies in – namely, the food military personnel eat.
Researchers at the Natick labs are not only developing nutritional meals ready to eat, or MREs, that have a shelf life of two to three years and can survive airdrops, but are also toying with the recipes and heating technology so the meals taste good, said Patty Cariveau, who works in food development.
She said that researchers conduct tests to see what dishes soldiers in the field like best, and tailor daily menus around that.
“Every year we change the menu, which is a challenge,” Cariveau said. “It’s all what the war fighter wants.”
Cariveau said that the spaghetti and meat sauce dish is one of the most popular dishes, and is the only item that has been offered for the past 30 years.
She also said soldiers are eating up the idea of pocket sandwiches - either honey barbecued chicken or Mexican beef wrap varieties - and added that researchers have studied how to reduce the moisture between the bread and the meat for optimal taste.
In his recent visit to the center, McHugh emphasized the importance of providing a tasty meal to soldiers.
“You don’t think about the work and research and analysis that goes into making sure we’re providing something the soldier wants to eat,” McHugh said. “You can pack all the nutrients you want into a pouch, but if a soldier doesn’t find it very palatable, they are not going eat it.”
He also said in his visit that despite looming base closures, the Natick Soldier Systems Center offers something special to US troops.
“The work that is done here and the people here are essential for our soldiers, to keep them safe and comfortable,” McHugh said. “I can’t imagine that ever going away. I would say this location has value.”
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