Military Kicks Off Proof Challenge to Redesign Chemical Warfare Suits

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Top designers across the country joined military officials on Aug. 25 at the Museum of Science in Boston to kick off the Proof Challenge — a Pentagon design competition to revolutionize the suit worn by troops to protect against chemical and biological attacks.

Designers are competing for a prize pool of $250,000 by submitting designs to improve the military’s collection of chemical and biological defense suits like the JSLIST (Joint Service Lightweight Integrated Suit Technology). Joint Program Executive Office Chemical and Biological Defense is sponsoring the competition in hopes of attracting new innovations inside the design industry.

A diverse collection of designers and engineers got a chance to interact with the current JSLIST at the event. The designers tried on the suit and got an opportunity to feel the heat and weight of wearing the suit firsthand. Designers ran through an obstacle course and were even timed to see how fast they could put on the suit to simulate a gas attack.

Design startups and students from universities such as Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the Rhode Island School of Design attended the kickoff with many saying they intended to enter the competition. Meeting with the JPEO Chemical and Biological Defense officials provided the potential applications the immediate feedback necessary to start working on submissions.

“It’s going to be an exciting challenge for fashion designers,” said Denise Hammon, President of the School of Fashion Design in Boston. “As they think about the client, the soldier in this case, they have to keep in mind the different factors that go into this design such as maneuverability, the integration of technology and to be able to make the suit appropriate to the gender. One size does not fit all.”

Leroy Garey, a project manager for JPEO Chemical and Biological Defense, opened the kickoff event by introducing the competition.

Leroy Garey, a project manager for JPEO Chemical and Biological Defense, opened the kickoff event by introducing the competition.

The competition will run throughout the fall allowing designers to send in designs through December. Submissions to the competition will be judged by a panel that includes a mix of commercial and government design officials. On the commercial side, the judges panel includes officials from Under Armour, Boathouse, and Velocity Systems.

Boathouse recently received attention for designing the wet suit that American rowers wore in the 2016 Rio Olympics to protect them from water pollution. Under Armour has been a leader in investing in new forms of performance wear.

The prize pool for the competition has been broken up into multiple awards. Up to three finalists will win between $50,000 – $150,000, and three semifinalists will win up to $25,000. The agency will also be awarding small prize contest winners up to $5,000 to encourage iterative designs. Full rules and requirements for the competition can be found at www.proofchallenge.com.

Designers and engineers talk with Natalie Pomerantz, a Research Chemical Engineer at U.S. Army Natick Soldier R&D and Engineering Center at the Proof Challenge Kickoff in Boston.

Designers and engineers talk with Natalie Pomerantz, a Research Chemical Engineer at U.S. Army Natick Soldier R&D and Engineering Center at the Proof Challenge Kickoff in Boston.

Sensis Challenges is running the competition for JPEO Chemical and Biological Defense. TandemNSI’s marketing team organized the kickoff event.

Capt. Steve Gerry, a deputy project manager for JPEO Chemical and Biological Defense, said his agency didn’t want to put too many restrictions on the designers as part of the company. The agency wanted to see what type of solutions they could come up with and then apply those solutions to the suit.

“The solutions we are looking for aren’t necessarily a complete solution to protect the warfighter. We are looking for pieces and parts for different focus areas that might help to build that ultimate suit.” Gerry said.

Proof Crowd

Designers, students and startups watch the panel session at the Proof Challenge Kickoff in Boston on Aug. 25.

The JSLIST remains effective in protecting troops, but it has not received a major upgrade in 25 years. Meanwhile, major updates to apparel design have occurred over that same time span, especially in performance sportswear.

“Innovation trends that would be relevant to this competition would be the ergonomics, the blurring of sports, fashion, technology and really thinking across the channels will be really important to making the suit dynamic for however long it is used in the future,” said Julianne Gauron, an industrial designer who has worked with the U.S. Navy and New Balance.

Gauraon, who is also serving as a judge for the panel, joined a group of panelists at the kickoff event who talked with the attendees about trends they have seen in apparel design and new approaches to spurring innovation inside government agencies. Hammon, Nick Sinai, former Deputy Chief Technology Officer of the United States; Maureen Kraner, White House Policy Advisor, Office of Science and Technology; Natalie Pomerantz, Research Chemical Engineer at U.S. Army Natick Soldier R&D and Engineering Center, also spoke on the panel.

A designer tries on the JSLIST at the Proof Challenge Kickoff in Boston on Aug. 25.

A designer tries on the JSLIST at the Proof Challenge Kickoff in Boston on Aug. 25.

Pomerantz said she was impressed by the level of engagement from the companies, designers and students who attended the event.

“We had many people who were not familiar with the problems and the issues with the chemical-biological protective suit who immediately understood some of the technical challenges and what might impact them.” she said after spending an hour talking with designers.

Now that the competition has started, Leroy Garey, a project manager for JPEO Chemical and Biological Defense, and Heather Shirey, a Chief Systems Engineer for JPEO Chemical and Biological Defense said they are excited to see what new designs come out of this.

“We want people with fresh new ideas who have never done this before that are going to think of things we’ve never thought on,” Shirey said.

Attendees talk about some of the design challenges of the mask as part of the competition.

Attendees talk about some of the design challenges of the mask as part of the competition.

— The author, Michael Hoffman, can be reach at mhoffman@tandemnsi.com.

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