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Prototyping Body Armor

From the first time a warrior strapped on some leather hide, body armor has continually evolved. Each time a new type of armor was invented, weapons technology eventually surpassed the protection offered. This resulted in a new round of improvements in armor, followed by bigger and better weapons meant to defeat the newest upgrade.

No armor is proof against modern weapons tech. Bulletproof vests only stop small caliber rounds, and even the thickest Kevlar chest plate isn’t invulnerable. Modern armor is designed to reduce fatalities, rather than provide all-encompassing protection. What armor does best is reduce the impact of ricochets and shrapnel, saving lives by protecting the torso.

Dragon Fish

The scales of the Dragon Fish have provided protection during its millions of year of evolution, providing real-life proof of concept for scale armor design. Courtesy of OpenCage.

Any system of body armor is a tradeoff between weight, mobility and protection. In their search for improved modern armor, researchers have looked to the past and studied the natural armor of various fish and animals. The newest innovation to come from these studies is based on scale mail armor and a small fish that goes by the big name of “dragon fish.”

If you don’t happen to be a medieval lore junkie, scale mail armor was made by creating small, diamond shaped plates. The plates were then sewn, bolted or laced onto a leather backing so that each diamond slightly overlapped the other. The result was a flexible piece of armor that provided improved protection against blunt attacks (such as those from a mace).

The Polypterus senegalus, aka the dragon fish, has a natural form of scale mail armor that has smaller scales that are more flexible near the tail, and larger scales that are more rigid around the body. Scientists at MIT have designed a new type of modern scale mail armor based on the dragon fish’s scales. Researchers made X-rays of the scales and figured out they fit together.

Following the X-rays, the scientists made CAD models of the scales, increasing the scale to fit a human. These designs were then printed out using a 3D printer, creating a prototype with 144 interlinking scales. Details of the research were reported at the 2013 meeting of the Society of Integrative and Comparative Biology. The team hopes to eventually construct a full set of scale armor to replace the heavy Kevlar vests currently worn by combat troops.

Below you’ll find a video that looks at the history of body armor.

Source: New Scientist

About John Newman

John Newman is a freelance writer in Northeast Ohio.

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