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Next-gen gas mask cooler, more comfortable

Auto-control fan, sensors in battery-powered design

May. 27, 2014 - 09:08PM   |  
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The rollout of the Army’s new gas mask is underway, but researchers already have plans for the next-gen model: An integrated mask-helmet design with a battery-powered, fan-driven air filtration system.

Tests of the system — which developers at the Army’s Edgewood Chemical Biological Center in Aberdeen, Maryland, say will be lighter than units now in service — have been underway for more than a year.

Recent trials involved modifying the commercial version of the M50, one of the masks now being rolled out to soldiers, and putting civilian subjects through stressful activities, such as crawling with a rifle and shoveling sand.

The modifications allow a blower to move air across the wearer’s face, rather than having the user suck the air through the purification filter.

It’s a simple step that not only improves protection and creates a better seal on the mask, but also circulates air for the user for a more comfortable experience — compared with other gas masks, anyway.

“With any respiration device, comfort is an issue,” said Dan Barker, a researcher in ECBC’s respiratory protection branch. “That’s well-documented everywhere. There’s always a goal to try to minimize that discomfort.”

Barker and fellow team members are in the early stages of the gas-mask portion of the unit, which then would be combined with a next-generation helmet to complete the design.

Integrated mask-helmet testing hasn’t started yet, ECBC officials said, nor is there a date for when the new gear could become available, even to special operators.

Futuristic design

That means the jet-black helmet/mask setup that illustrated a recent news release — one that would be right at home on the set of a science-fiction movie — is far from the finished project. ECBC researcher Dave Caretti said it’s “kind of the end goal of everything we’re doing,” but “we have not done any testing of anything that’s like that picture. We are testing technologies that lead toward that end goal.”

That hasn’t stopped multiple online gadget sites from writing about the gear, with one even calling it the Army’s foray into producing an “air-conditioned helmet,” Barker said. Soldiers shouldn’t get their hopes up quite that high.

“The air that’s being blown is clean, ambient air,” he said, “ but it’s not cold. It doesn’t change humidity. While we intend to link to a helmet, at some point, we are not in the business of building a helmet.”

However, testers did report the ambient-air circulation kept them cooler. And one futuristic-sounding improvement is being worked on by ECBC, which is part of Army Research, Development and Engineering Command — creating a mask that can tell what kind of protection the soldier needs, then turn on, turn off or adjust power without input from the wearer.

“Sensors [would] auto-control fan speed,” Caretti waid. “We are looking at some of those potential technologies. It’s not in a platform to test yet.”

Rollout of the Defense Department’s Joint Service General Purpose Mask began with the other services in 2010; fielding is still ongoing for soldiers. Those M50 and M51 models replaced M40 and M42 masks that were developed in the 1980s.

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