Battlespace Tech

New tech can help troops keep their cool in high temperatures

As a heat wave—or heat dome—spreads across much of the United States this week, pushing temperatures into triple digits in many places and causing at least 16 states to issue heat advisories and/or warnings, people, while taking care to follow precautions, might get a sense of what it’s like for troops deployed in some of the globe’s more blistering climes.

Of course, if you really want to get a feel for it, cover yourself head to toe and strap on 100 or 120 pounds of equipment and take the field. That’s the problem the Air Force Research Laboratory is addressing with hydrogel cooling technologies that can help keep soldiers, airmen and special forces operations personnel more comfortable without adding too much excess weight.

The lab’s 711th Human Performance Wing is working under a cooperative research and development agreement with Gawi Healthcare on a lightweight passive cooling technology in two variations: a cooling sleeve or wrap, invented by the air Force, for the water bladder carried by airmen and other special ops forces, and cooling inserts for an undershirt, according to a report on the Defense department’s Armed With Science site.

The research started with the acknowledgement can be a legitimate threat to deployed troops. “Military personnel exposed to excessive heat for an extended period of time may experience reductions in both physical and cognitive performance,” said Dr. Reginald O’Hara, who leads an exercise physiology research team at the Air Force School of Aerospace Medicine within the 711th wing. “Those reductions could severely limit their ability to carry out their duties during intense ground and flight operations.”

The problem with cooling technologies to date has been that they’re bulky and heavy, making it impractical to carry them in the field. The answer was the hydrogel technology, which Gawi developed after acquiring a company called Arctic Ease.

“The devices act through a form of conduction,” O’Hara said, “transferring heat from the water in the hydration pack bladder or the airman to the hydrogel.”

Tests of the undershirt, which included 70 minutes on a treadmill, showed that subjects has a lower core body temperature and a lower peak body temperature. The sleeve also managed to lower the temperature of drinking water by about 20 degrees during hour-long marches in 90 F temperatures with 40 percent humidity.

The result is that deployed troops have a better chance of keeping their cool, even if only by a little. “During sustained operations, even a few degrees can make a tremendous difference,” O’Hara said. “If these cooling devices can lead battlefield Airmen and other special ops forces to drink more or help keep them from over-heating, the risk of heat stress and other heat-related illnesses goes down. And that means their focus can be on accomplishing the mission.”

And for people who work outside and might find themselves struggling to get through this heat wave or others, researchers said they are hoping to eventually commercialize the technology, so a little relief could be on the way.  

About the Author

Kevin McCaney is a former editor of Defense Systems and GCN.

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