Virtual Soldier Research (VSR) Program Works with Navy to improve Motion-Capture Technology, Improve Body Armor Designs, and Increase the Safety of Warfighters

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

The Navy has recently enlisted the Virtual Soldier Research (VSR) Program to help improve the design of body-armor systems.  To do so, VSR is studying alterative motion capture systems, and developing new capabilities for easily interpreting the results.  These new capabilities will be integrated with Santos®, a software environment for digital (computer-based) human modeling and simulation that originated at VSR.  Lead by Dr. Karim Abdel-Malek, the director of VSR and the PI on this effort, VSR is already conducting R&D that will help the Navy and the Marine Corps improve human performance, lighten the load that Warfighetrs have to carry, and improve body armor design through virtual analysis.  The Office of Naval Research (ONR) has provided initial funding for this new effort and hopes to provide a total of approximately $1 million over three years.  In addition, there are plans for a complimentary effort that will focus on using the newly develop motion-capture capabilities for physically evaluating the effects of load and body armor on task completion.

Driven initially by the entertainment industry, motion capture technology has become a popular means for displaying motion in a virtual environment.  To date, the primary use has been purely for visualizing motion or enhancing the animated motion of cinematic characters like Gollum and Kind Kong.  The most accurate and popular types of motion-capture system have used infrared cameras.  These infrared-based systems require reflective markers physically attached to the motion capture subject(s) and multiple cameras to view the markers.  Consequently, their versatility is limited, especially when having to consider body borne equipment.

Recently, motion-capture has been identified as a technology for improving Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) design with respect to biomechanical performance.  However, marker-based systems are ineffective when the markers are covered by equipment or body armor, and/or when the systems are used outside.  The Navy has investigated the use of inertial systems that do not require cameras or markers and although this technology has proven effective, there are limitations, and the existing work-around can be cumbersome.  In addition, motion capture systems have only recently been used for biomechanical analysis, and the software (not necessarily the hardware) in this respect is lacking.  The output data can be difficult if not impossible (for novices) to interpret, especially in the context of PPE evaluation during mission-critical tasks.  VSR and SantosHuman Inc. (SHI), the spin-off company with the exclusive license to commercialize the Santos® research, are responding to these gaps in the technology by combining VSR’s world class research with commercial software-development expertise, in order to respond to these gaps in the technology.

One of the exciting aspects of this work is the collaboration between VSR’s human modeling and simulation research, the expertise in Motion Capture and Validation processes at Dr. Salam Rahmatalla’s 3D Biomotion lab, and the software commercialization expertise at SantosHuman.  “VSR is quickly growing into a center of excellence for this kind of technology, and having the opportunity to push it forward is very exciting,” say Dr. Tim Marler, the program manager for this new program.  “In addition,” says Dr. Marler, “the program provides opportunity to leverage the modular structure of the Santos software and thus facilitate collaboration.”

As the design process for personal protective equipment focuses more on overall system design (not just material properties), and as a human system integration (HSI) approach becomes more, tools like motion capture will be needed for evaluating human performance while wearing PPE.  As these processes and technologies evolve, inertial motion-capture systems have become advantageous, because they do not require cumbersome cameras or markers that can be occluded by equipment.  However, although this technology is maturing quickly, existing analysis software is insufficient, and automated use of such systems for biomechanical analysis is immature.

Improvements in body-armor performance through advancements with new materials have provided dimensioning returns.  Thus, there is now a focus on human-centric design of complete body armor systems, not just on individual plates or material properties.  In this regard, increased coverage with minimal degradation in mobility can have a greater effect on survivability than improved material performance.  Today, ergonomics and biomechanics are considered only to a minimal extent during the design and analysis of PPE due primarily to the lack of digital human modeling and simulation tools developed specifically for this purpose.  The new Santos® capabilities and methods for systematically evaluating and improving PPE will ultimately save lives.  “There simply are no software systems for helping design better body armor from a human factors perspective, and VSR is carving out a niche for this kind of virtual human-centric design” says Dr. Marler.  The proposed work will yield software that will enhance use and interpretation of inertial motion-capture data, and will enable automatic evaluation and comparison of PPE designs from a Warfighter-centric perspective.  This in turn will help provide PPE systems that allow for improved mobility and survivability.