Airman comes up with a cool idea … and leaders listened

Credit: 88th Air Base Wing

Credit: 88th Air Base Wing

New combat vest could ‘drastically’ reduce heat casualties, stress

Anybody who has worn body armor any amount of time knows it can get pretty warm. First Lt. Justin O’Brien, 88th Security Forces Squadron, certainly knows.

As an enlisted “Defender” stationed at Laughlin Air Force Base, Texas, where temperatures over 100 degrees are common, he experienced it.

“Anybody that’s worn a vest in any sort of hot conditions can relate to the situations that the warfighter, anybody that has to wear ballistic armor, have to face,” O’Brien said. “But security forces have a very specific role as having to wear it for eight to 10 hours every single day.”

It’s not just uncomfortable. It can be deadly.

From 2009 to 2019, 17 service members died from heat-related injuries, O’Brien said. He took advantage of the Air Force’s Spark Tank competition to do something about it.

Spark Tank is a program designed to let Airmen get their ideas in front of Air Force leadership.

The Deputy Undersecretary of the Air Force for Management’s Business Systems and Performance Directorate started the competition in an effort to “collect game-changing, innovative ideas across the Air Force,” said Bethany Weiser, Air Force Materiel Command’s Guardian Airman Innovation Network program manager.

“They were trying to create something fun and lively that would entice individuals to submit ideas involving improvement and innovation,” she said. “Those who are chosen to advance to the top five get to present their ideas at the (Air Force Association) symposium that happens every year in March.”

It starts at the major command level, so O’Brien had to get his idea past the AFMC competition and judges. Actually, he first had to come up with an idea about how to cool the Airman wearing body armor.

Credit: 88th Air Base Wing

Credit: 88th Air Base Wing

‘Ounces equal pain’

There have been previous attempts by the military to solve the problem, but they failed due to one issue or another.

Among warfighters, there is a saying that “ounces equal pain,” so the solution could not add additional weight. Nor could it be having the Airman wear an additional garment that would add heat and make the situation worse if the system failed or a battery died. It also could not add bulky equipment that hinders movement.

O’Brien figured the solution was the water bladder the Airman or “Defender” is carrying anyway.

“Originally, the idea came from my experience deployed,” he said. “Often, I’d fill my CamelBak with frozen water bottles so I’d have cold water throughout the day.”

He came up with a way to use that cold water to cool the “Defender.”

“You can use it to cool your body while you’re not actually drinking it,” he added. “It provides a little bit of secondary use for weight that you’re already carrying.”

O’Brien sketched out a design, put a team together and got to work.

“So I built it in my garage essentially,” he said. “It took me a couple weeks and couple trips to Lowe’s. But once it was actually embodied, everything rolled really quickly.”

His concept is a series of tubes, small pump and a cooling pad.

He said water is drawn from the CamelBak and pushed through a small diaphragm pump, which provides positive pressure to a small chilling pattern that sits inside the vest’s armor. That water is then returned to the CamelBak, unless the Airman wants to pause for a drink.

The only additional weight is the pump and batteries.

“As it is currently, the manifold and the batteries together weigh 11 ounces. It adds 11 ounces to your burden,” O’Brien said. “Now, ounces do equal pain, but we think the benefit outweighs the costs.”

If the battery or pump fails, the system resorts back to a normal water bladder.

“Even if it fails, internal bypasses were made so that it overrides the whole manifold system anyway. So, at the end of the day, it is still just a CamelBak. You can draw the water no matter what,” O’Brien said.

Once O’Brien had his homemade prototype, it was time for his team – himself; his wife, 1st Lt. Dominique O’Brien; Mike Moulton, from the Air Force Research Laboratory’s 711th Human Performance Wing; Senior Airman Aaron Copley and Senior Airman Daniel Kruppa, then both with 88 SFS – to test the concept.

There is video of them from 2019 performing a fitness test in body armor at the Area A track on Wright-Patterson Air Force Base—flipping tires, running, carrying ammo cans, doing push-ups. Sensors showed the temperature inside the armor rising.

“In our small testing over one day, the temperature inside the vest went up to 20 degrees above ambient,” O’Brien said. “That’s encompassing a lot of different factors, but we found that when you turn that vest on, it drops the internal temperature almost immediately.”

According to O’Brien, the temperature dropped 30 degrees – from 20 degrees above ambient to 10 degrees below – cooler than if the body armor was not being worn at all.

The team came to realize the cooling system, with its positive water pressure, could have additional advantages out in the field, including being able to irrigate wounds or replenish a wingman whose water supply had run low.

With the system tested, it was time to see what the people at the AFMC Spark Tank 2020 had to say.

They liked it.

Credit: 88th Air Base Wing

Credit: 88th Air Base Wing

‘I just kept pushing it’

O’Brien’s prototype was selected as one of two finalists to represent AFMC at the Air Force-level competition against other major commands.

His team did not win, but as a semifinalist, it was awarded $2,500 divided evenly among the members. More importantly for O’Brien, the submission got attention – a lot of it.

That’s when things got more complicated.

Patents were needed, as well as an improved prototype. Licensing agreements have to be negotiated.

One of the first stops was to David Tyler, then the AFMC Improvement Branch chief, who now heads up the Improvement and Innovation Cell.

The branch’s job was to assist and mentor those with innovative ideas and help make them a reality. O’Brien and his vest were a challenge.

“We were still trying to learn the system ourselves of how do we get idea submitters to the right people and then be able to, hopefully, get it into production,” Tyler said. “Basically, we just did cold calls.”

The group consulted AFMC Contracting and Legal about the need for a patent.

Tyler remembers that led to a 90-minute meeting at the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center’s Legal Office, talking with the patent point of contact and learning how the process works.

“Our job was to try to break the door down, if you will, knock on the door and introduce him to the appropriate people that we felt needed to help him get his idea into execution and manufacturing,” Tyler said.

It did not happen overnight. O’Brien said it seemed to have died for about a year and a half.

“I just kept pushing it. ‘Take a look at this. Take a look at this.’ You have to be your own advocate to a certain point,” O’Brien said. “If we had let it fail, it probably would have. But making sure that people still know about it helped it to gain traction and helped to get to where it’s a funded project that’s being further developed by professionals that are way better at this than I am.”

AFRL expertise aimed at widespread use

Those professionals are at the Air Force Research Laboratory’s 711th Human Performance Wing. O’Brien says the project was “fortunate enough” to land with James Christensen, an AFRL product line lead in biotechnology for performance research and demonstration.

“I’ve got an 80% solution with my parts from Lowe’s,” O’Brien added. “But James Christensen’s lab has taken over from here and they’re providing a professional, well-made prototype for further development.”

Christensen said his team had given O’Brien a little bit of support when he was making his original prototype.

“But where we really became engaged was after the Spark Tank competition,” he said. “He got a lot of interest and support from the vice chief of staff and then from headquarters Air Force. What came back down through AFMC was they loved the concept, but it needs to be matured a little bit more.”

That is what Christensen’s lab is designed to do.

“Where the AFRL expertise comes in is to take that early prototype, make it a little bit more robust, make it a little bit easier to manufacture, and then work with (O’Brien) on the testing,” he said.

The two sides continue to work on identifying materials for lighter system components and a simpler overall design. Building the next-generation prototype also had an additional challenge.

“Since it is drinking water that’s going through the system, we want to ensure that any materials that come into contact with the drinking water are food safe and won’t impact the ability to drink from the water bladder,” Christensen said.

The idea behind Christensen’s rapid prototyping cell is to bring together people from different specialties to work together, such as computer and biomedical engineers, material scientists, people with backgrounds in physics, and experts in human performance or psychology.

“We can have all those disciplines, including a lot of our active-duty Airmen – generally company grade officers – work in this cell because it provides an opportunity for them to practice their skills, work on a number of different projects and see a heavy impact on the operational Air Force,” he said. “It’s bringing together all those capabilities that enables us to deliver prototypes rapidly.”

Christensen believes this project has the potential to be something big.

“We really see this cooling body armor concept as having application far beyond just the security forces or even just the Air Force,” he said. “I think it’s got applicability to the other services. It’s got applicability in the private sector as well.

“We are talking to a couple of different external companies about potentially licensing Lt. O’Brien’s intellectual property and then manufacturing, marketing, sustaining the system, and making it available, really, for widespread adoption.”

The design’s simplicity is one of the system’s strong suits, Christensen added.

“The design is simple enough that it’s readily adaptable to a lot of different Air Force operational environments,” he said. “So the bioenvironmental engineer that has to work in (mission-oriented protective posture) gear to do field assessments and mitigation, that’s a great example of what is a very hot, very unpleasant environment, if it’s at all warm outside. This capability could be readily integrated into that gear.”

Credit: 88th Air Base Wing

Credit: 88th Air Base Wing

What’s next for cooling system?

The new prototype has been built. In December, the Army’s 18th Airborne Corps invited O’Brien to take part in Dragon’s Lair 6, its counterpart to Spark Tank. He became the competition’s first non-Army winner.

The cooling system, which still doesn’t have a name O’Brien is happy with, was his idea and design, but he says he could not have done this on his own.

“It’s not just me,” he said. “It took a team of five people on the Shark Tank initial idea to actually come up with this, and it takes a larger team to make sure that it doesn’t fail and doesn’t get kicked to the side. I can’t even begin to list the amount of people that we’ve worked together with to make sure that this continues to go to development.

“That’s the main takeaway on this. It’s not one person who can do it by themselves. It takes a team.”

Opportunity via the Spark Tank concept was another factor.

“This project would not have been a success without the Spark Tank and the Spark Tank team. Their support (and) advocacy was instrumental in making this happen,” he said.

“It would be really cool to see an idea that actually started from the bottom, that started at the user level, and got made into a product. ... You know that your leadership and the ‘big Air Force,’ people that I don’t know, are listening to the small people and are able to understand the needs of what the troops could use.”

Mostly, O’Brien is hopeful.

“I hope that this device, using this cooling capacity, will drastically reduce the amount of heat casualty (and) heat stress that our Airmen are under every single day,” he said. “I think it’s a huge step forward accomplishing that, but time will tell on how it actually works out.”

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