The US company, FLIR Systems, known for its thermal imaging infrared cameras, has announced that it will be embarking on a five-year project to develop new fabrics that could potentially birth a new generation of PPE.
FLIR Systems announced in April that it has won a contract with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to rapidly develop novel fabrics with embedded catalysts and chemistries that can fight and reduce chemical and biological threats upon contact.
The ‘revolutionary’ fabrics will be incorporated into protective suits and other equipment such as boots, gloves, and eye protection that can be worn by medical experts, healthcare workers and soldiers on the frontline. FLIR received $11.2 million in initial funding for the potential five-year effort worth up to $20.5 million.
FLIR specialises in developing products that can detect weapons of mass destruction with approximately 31% of its revenues coming from the US federal government.
Although the company is best known for its sensors and sensing material, it also has an arm of the business based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, whose core expertise is in the stabilisation and use of biomaterials such as enzymes for detecting chemical and biological warfare agents.
The company’s team in Pittsburgh has been working for around twenty years on a number of technologies, including a spray that changes colour in the presence of specific contaminations.
“For a long time now, we’ve been taking those enzyme materials and stabilising them so we can be able to use them as detector materials,” Dr Cullin said.
“We won a contract [five years ago] where we started working on this concept of impregnating materials and creating reactive suit materials
The project forms part of a larger programme from DARPA that aims to design and develop novel ways of protecting people from chemical and biological threats without the need for detection devices or cumbersome suits.
The goal of the programme, named Personalised Protective Biosystems (PPB), is to reduce the substantial weight and physiological burden of current Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) so soldiers and other specialists can better perform their tasks.
“The idea is with this particular programme is to create a protective system that can be almost daily worn, as opposed to something special that [has] to be put on if there’s a threat or if an alarm was to go off.
PPB will combine novel, lightweight protective materials with new prophylactic medical technologies that mitigate chemical and biological threats at vulnerable tissue barriers, notably the eyes, skin and lungs.
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The complete system will enable troops and first responders to operate without the burden of carrying and wearing PPE, which can cause heat stress and reduce time spent completing the mission.
“The piece [of the programme] that we are involved with is [about] designing the next generation of protective suits, boots, masks, gloves, balaclavas, etcetera, to prevent exposure without having to put a very burdensome, heavily protected posture there.
“Putting one of these protective suits on, the burden on you is substantial; they don’t breathe well, you end up sweating off pounds of perspiration and it certainly reduces your effectiveness and ability to do whatever your job is.”
Chemical and biological agents are rarely used in modern warfare, however there are rare instances of such substances being used on an annual basis, Dr Cullin says.
“[Biological and chemical agents] have not really been used in a force on force sense in quite some time, but we know that there are adversaries that have inventories of them and have plans to use them,” Dr Cullin said.
“By analogy, there hasn’t been a nuclear bomb explosion in a long time either and yet we really need to be prepared for people using it. That’s what we’re doing here.”
Although the programme is focused primarily on the development of fabrics for combat scenarios, FLIR says there is also scope for the novel PPB to be used by medical professionals working with infectious diseases such as COVID-19 and Ebola.
“The real goals of the programme go well beyond the military,” Dr Cullin added. “That’s because when these kinds of threats occur, it isn’t just a military problem, it’s everybody’s problem.
“It could very well be used in hospitals. My daughter is a nurse, she works in an ICU and she just went through a year of wearing a lot of protective posture. So, if even little pieces of the PPB programme could be successful, it could relieve a lot of burden on [healthcare workers].”
FLIR and its teaming partners, including Oxford University, will develop a prototype fabric material called the Integrated Soldier Protective System (ISPS). Work will take place at the company’s facilities in Pittsburgh and will be tested by government laboratories.
There are a number of avenues that the company intends to explore and will look at various chemistries to create a fabric that is effective against a wide range of different materials,
For example, an enzyme material that reacts with and detoxifies a nerve agent. Another possible fabric, Dr Cullin said, is a porous material that can open and close depending on the presence of dangerous materials. This could potentially solve the issue of overheating that is common with current PPE technology.
The project is currently in its early stages. The FLIR team is working on the fundamentals of impregnating its novel chemistries into new materials.
“The next steps are to create the fabrics and start testing the fabrics. We have a number of different chemical systems that we’re working on. So we’re going to test a number of them and the ones that work will then move forward into the next phase.”
The ISPS award consists of a two-year base period, two-year first option, and one-year final option. The result after five years will be a suite of prototype protective fabrics and garments ready for the transition to a program of record with the U.S. Department of Defense.
“The goals and objectives of the programme [are] aggressive,” Dr Cullin added. “It’s okay to aim high and we work to reach as many of those objectives as we possibly can.”