Monday 9 December 2019

Mannequin to test chemical suits

Jaime Cummins checks the Porton Man robot mannequin that will help test the next generation of chemical and biological suits for the UK's armed forces
Jaime Cummins checks the Porton Man robot mannequin that will help test the next generation of chemical and biological suits for the UK's armed forces

A new robot mannequin that will help test the next generation of chemical and biological protective suits for the UK's armed forces has been unveiled.

The Porton Man can walk, march, run, sit, kneel and even mimic the movement of a soldier sighting a weapon, allowing scientists to test the suits designed to protect UK personnel from chemical and biological attacks such as nerve agents like Sarin.

The mannequin has been made for the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (Dstl) in Porton Down, Wiltshire - where clothing systems worn by soldiers are tested against chemical warfare agents - by Buckingham-based company i-bodi Technology Ltd.

Mannequins have been used by Dstl in the past, but the new animatronic version has a raft of improvements from a moving head, to a better range of movement, and sensors all over its body that allow scientists to carry out real-time analysis while it is being tested.

Previous models, brought into use in the late 1990s, helped influence the final design of the chemical, biological and radiological (CBR) suits currently used by the armed forces.

Scientists today said the new creation - made using Formula 1 technology - will bring another "step-change" in the way the next generation of protective clothing is designed to keep pace with future threats.

Jaime Cummins, of Dstl's Chemical and Biological Physical Protection group, said the new Porton Man is much lighter than its predecessor - 14kg (30lb) instead of about 80kg (176lb) - and easier to move in and out of its test chamber.

While the previous version's head was attached to the frame it sits in, this one has a movable head that can test the effect it has on the equipment being worn, as well as removable thumbs to make it easier to put gloves on, and ankles that flex.

The new version also sits on a rotating turntable so it can not only be tested in windy environments created by fans, but scientists can see what happens when that wind is coming from different directions.

The latest Porton Man also comes with software that allows scientists to programme a range of movement to fit with certain scenarios, and help test what equipment would be like dealing with real situations in the field.

Mr Cummins said: "Significant advances in animatronics, material design and sensing technologies have all been incorporated into this new Porton Man mannequin.

"As a result, we will be able to assess and characterise protective clothing in ways which were not previously possibly.

The new mannequin is hoped to help work on producing a new, lighter-weight protective suit for the future.

Mr Cummins added: "It's a better, more realistic test system, and we are now in a better position and better place to design and develop the next generation of CB (chemical and biological) protective suit equipment."

In a £1.1 million project, the new Porton Man was made by i-bodi Technology, which has designed and made mannequins before, but draws on experience of making animatronics and robotics for films and television.

Chief executive Jez Gibson-Harris said they were tasked with producing a lightweight robotic mannequin based on data collected from 2,500 soldiers, that was easy to handle, had a wide range of movement.

He said: "Of course there were a number of challenges associated with this and one way we looked to tackle these challenges was through the use of Formula One technology.

"Using the same concepts as those used in racing cars, we were able to produce very light but highly durable carbon composite body parts for the mannequin."

He added: "We tried to make it far more realistic than the current Porton Man."

Minister for defence equipment, support and technology Philip Dunne said: "This technology, designed by a British company, is enabling the UK to lead the way in this important testing.

"Increased investment in science and technology by the MoD (Ministry of Defence) is not only enabling battle-winning and lifesaving equipment to be developed but also helping innovative companies like i-bodi Technology to develop cutting edge capability."

PA Media

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