With energy- or blast-attenuating seating installed in select ground vehicles, the U.S. military has been increasing survivability of its vehicle-based troops one seat at a time.
Installed in mine-resistant ambush protected (MRAP) vehicles and some other vehicles, these unique seats use technology to help keep personnel riding within a vehicle from feeling the full effects of an improvised explosive device (IED), mine or other blast, should their vehicle encounter one.
“They’re absolutely critical for the survivability of the occupant. It is what the occupant is riding on and, essentially, it is the last line of defense in terms of protecting the soldier or the occupant because of the survivability features on the seat,” said Mike McDermott, program director for vehicle protection at BAE Systems, which has supplied blast-attenuating seating on MRAPs and the Bradleys. “It essentially provides the ultimate solution in terms of survivability in a blast event or a vertical attenuation-type event that the occupant’s going to see.”
These seats have saved American lives—and could save even more if the U.S. military were to expand their use on even more ground platforms, according to executives at companies that make the seats.
“Initially, the seats were deployed in MRAPs and light combat vehicles as a means of defeating overmatch conditions in the field. This is a trend that is continuing, and with good reason. However, the place where they would have the biggest impact is in common-use platforms like medium and heavy cargo trucks,” said Jim Carter, director of product development for survivability at QinetiQ North America, a Waltham, Mass.-based contractor which has been working on developing and deploying blast-attenuating seating technology for more than a decade. “In Iraq and Afghanistan, a high percentage of casualties were non-combat personnel on resupply missions. Expanding the requirement to these vehicles will provide those operators with enhanced protection.”
QinetiQ North America has been working with the U.S. military since 2003 to research the technology behind blast-attenuating seating, Carter said.
“Starting in 2006, QinetiQ North America began refining and adapting the approach to better integrate it into the cramped spaces within vehicles. This has allowed us to meet a variety of operational and spatial requirements for vehicle retrofits and survivability upgrades,” he said.
It is likely that energy-attenuating seats will become more common as U.S. forces continue to battle asymmetrical threats, Carter predicted.
“The need to reduce vehicle weight and power requirements can come at a price in terms of armor and external blast protection. By integrating energy attenuation into the seats, lighter vehicles can be made more survivable and heavy vehicles less vulnerable to overmatch. In the end, the goal is to protect the warfighter,” he said.
BAE Systems’ McDermott said his company is working with combat vehicle teams, as well as light-, medium- and heavy-tactical vehicle teams within the U.S. Army and Marine Corps, to look at expanded deployment of blast-attenuating seats through “survivability upgrades or new vehicle configurations.”
Carter said that he sees a recent trend toward rating and adapting the seats to more general uses.
“Most of the early applications of the seating systems were responding to an urgent need. In these cases, the seats were generally designed to meet a specific change in velocity with a 50th percentile male occupant. In some cases, this meant that a lighter occupant did not receive the same protection in a particular event, or there was no protection provided in a lesser event,” he said. “To meet this, there has been work in the industry to provide active suspension systems with improved ride comfort. The downside to this approach is that they typically require power to operate. This adds a burden on the platforms at a time when the Army is looking to reduce power demands and better manage onboard resources. QinetiQ North America’s BlastRide technology provides active-like performance with a passive system that can adapt to various occupants and improve rideability without requiring power.”
Meanwhile, Santee, Calif.-based manufacturer MasterCraft Military has seen another trend with these seating systems, according to Kelli Willmore, the company’s vice president of business development.
“MasterCraft is currently witnessing quite a few of the ‘get rich quick’ seating companies exiting the business as large MRAP up-armored vehicles are no longer the choice of ‘boots on the ground,’” Willmore said. “Lighter and faster vehicles are the current choice of the armed forces, which has translated to needing a lighter, more affordable seat offering energy/blast-attenuating properties and ballistic protection.”
QinetiQ North America has more than 200 of its BlastRide seats (in three different variants) deployed on vehicles operated by NATO partner nations in Afghanistan, according to Carter.
“In a blast event, the system automatically resets, making it capable of handling both primary impulse and secondary impact. This allows the seat to provide both protection and rideability for the warfighter, improving their effectiveness at the objective,” he said. “In addition, QinetiQ North America developed a number of innovations that better address actual use issues seen by the warfighter, including dispersed padding to allow room for gear such as hydration packs or rucksacks. This ensures that the occupant is seated properly to maximize both protection and comfort, while minimizing the need to ‘gear up’ when the vehicle reaches its objective.
“QinetiQ North America also recognized that most vehicle applications would not be a one-size-fits-all solution,” Carter added. “Space claims (and requirements) vary dramatically from vehicle to vehicle and even within a vehicle. For example, the space available for the driver seat in a high mobility multipurpose wheeled vehicle is largely different than the space in a Stryker. Within the Stryker, there are at least three different space claims (driver, troop and gunner). What QinetiQ North America does is adapt the technology to the given space claim. In this way, we can maximize the protection level for every occupant while minimizing the impact on vehicle volume and weight.”
MasterCraft’s energy-attenuating products are a more affordable and lighter option to the “complicated and heavy ‘single event’ energy-attenuating seats currently found in the marketplace,” according to Willmore.
“MasterCraft’s simplicity in design provides an easy-to-install, lightweight product that performs and exceeds the outlined [vehicle manufacturer] requirements while keeping the competitive bottom line and budgetary restrictions in mind,” she said. “Additionally, MasterCraft’s technology allows for the product to be rebuilt or even replaced at a fraction of the cost over other seating systems, thus further reducing the overall cost of this important safety system over the life cycle of the vehicle.”
BAE Systems’ McDermott touts his company’s experience in aviation and transferred technology from crashworthy aviation seats into ground vehicle seats.
“Our seats, in general, go through rigorous testing before they’re ever put in theater to prove out the capabilities. They’re very, very capable,” he said. “We have a patented energy-attenuating system that is proprietary to BAE Systems and provides us with what we believe is a differentiator in the marketplace.” BAE Systems maintains an “occupant-centric approach” to developing its blast-attenuating seats, McDermott said.
“We realize that the seat can’t do everything on its own,” he said, adding that “our system has to be a part of a total-vehicle system” which includes floor and seat integration and “how everything ties together.”
“One of the differentiators is that we look at the whole-system approach. We don’t look at it as a stand-alone seat. We look at the total integration of our system into a vehicle platform,” McDermott added.
BAE Systems also employs extensive modeling and simulation in its development of the technology, he said. “It provides us a very, very strong understanding of how our seats can perform in live fire or applications that the vehicle can see out in theater,” he added.
The manufacturers are working on their systems to contain costs and make them lighter and even more effective.
Containing the costs of seats “is definitely a priority, as well as survivability and also comfort,” BAE Systems’ McDermott said. “When we do our initial design phase, we try to take into account all aspects in our initial designs that will optimize our design for lightweight materials, low-cost designs and, ultimately, provide us with the best survivability available,” he said. “We do design-to-cost efforts—what we call DTC efforts—to make sure that when we do our initial design and testing, we’ve looked at all aspects of providing a low-cost, highly robust system that can withstand the requirements that are put out by our customer, which would be the Army or Marine Corps.”
BAE Systems makes every effort, upfront, to “have a very, very strong understanding of the requirements so in our initial designs we can make sure that we have an optimized seating solution right off the bat,” McDermott said.
It’s “always a trade-off” between cost control and working with lighter-weight materials, he said.
“You have to manage the balance of putting in the lightest-weight materials versus putting in the lowest-cost materials. We’re always looking at managing that balance,” he added. QinetiQ North America is “always looking for ways to improve our seat performance while keeping the impact on the platform (in both cost and weight) down to a minimum,” Carter said.
“We are currently working on designs that will reduce our overall weight 25 percent while providing the same level of protection as our current models. In addition to that, we have been working towards better off-axis performance to protect against side blasts and improve federal motor vehicle safety standards performance. For cost control, our manufacturing team works to streamline the fabrication process and drive down costs,” he added.
Although MasterCraft has done “an exceptional job” of protecting a vehicle occupant’s torso, the next generation of safety seating systems will also need to concentrate on protecting an occupant’s limbs to truly increase a warfighter’s chances for survival in a conflict environment, Willmore said.
“Advancements in protecting the entire body will result from improved occupant envelope designs that integrate blast attenuation, deflection, and occupant leg and arm containment during an event,” she added. ♦
- Issue: 5
- Volume: 5