ORONO, Maine — University of Maine engineers and developers learned last week they have received a patent for the Modular Ballistic Protection System, in which 4-by-8-foot panels made from a composite material are strapped to metal tent frames or the inside of shipping containers to protect solders from exploding mortars and the blast force of an explosion.
Testing done in the U.S. showed soldiers inside the panel system were 100 times less likely to be seriously injured in a mortar attack, said Habib Dagher, director of UM’s Advanced Engineered Wood Composites, Advanced Structures and Composites Center. The system won an award last year from the American Composite Manufacturers Association.
But the patent, “that’s a major step forward,” Dagher said. “With the patent in place, the university is also working with a partner in Maine to manufacture these components, creating jobs in Maine and at the same time protecting troops overseas. Now it’s just a matter of the Army putting some orders together, and then this would be up and running.”
The university recently signed a licensing agreement with Portland-based Tex Tech Industries, which also has locations in Winthrop and North Monmouth as well as in China, Thailand and Ireland. Tex Tech already makes textiles for ballistics protection, and Dagher said after discussions with other Maine-based companies the composite center felt Tex Tech was in the best position to start producing panels quickly.
The company already has been in talks with the U.S. Army, Dagher said, and the military has expressed “major interest” in the technology, he added.
Tex Tech’s manufacturing and delivery plan includes an assembly facility in the area near its northernmost Maine offices. The plan includes participation from production, fabrication and supply companies from all over Maine, including Sullivan, Ellsworth, the Bangor area, Auburn, Lewiston, Greenfield and Biddeford.
If the planned production chain is followed, Dagher said Tex Tech has estimated the creation of 94 jobs in Maine.
“We have a major manufacturing tradition in this state,” Dagher said. “We’ve lost some of those jobs because they went overseas, but with these high-technology manufacturing jobs, we still have the capacity to compete. That’s why these kinds of projects are so important, because it transforms manufacturing from low-end to high-end.”
Once the production line is up and running, Dagher and composite center senior research and development program manager Larry Parent said Tex Tech could make thousands of panels in just two to three months.
There are only a dozen or so panel systems now being used in war zones, all of which were made at the composite center’s UMaine facility. The next group of panels, which will be assembled at the Tex Tech facility, will be prototypes to test the production chain, Parent said. Those prototypes should be shipped to the theater by the end of May.
To the knowledge of officials at the University of Maine’s AEWC Advanced Structures and Composites Center, the panel system they designed to protect soldiers from mortar attacks hasn’t yet been used during an incident in the real world of a war zone.
The panels have been safety-approved by the Army for use with both a frame and a shipping container. Dagher described the panel-covered tent or container as a large walk-in helmet, with similar ballistic requirements.
“When you have troops in the field, in a combat zone, with a helmet and vest on, it gives you a level of protection,” he said. “When you go to sleep in your tent you take your helmet and vest off, and you have no protection. This gives you the same level of protection inside your tent.”
A 16-foot-by-16-foot shelter can be installed in about one hour using four people.
The composite panels —– the largest of which measures 4 feet by 8 feet and weighs 4 pounds — cost less than $22 per square foot. A helmet costs $300 in materials alone per square foot of helmet, Parent said.
Dagher said the UMaine composites center has received some phone calls directly from troops from Iraq and Afghanistan requesting information about the panels. Parent said he recently took a phone call from a private contractor whose employees operating in Afghanistan had been seriously injured.
The callers all want to know when the panels will be available.
“The need is out there in a major way,” Dagher said. “Now that the technology exists and it’s been approved for deployment, we’re able to manufacture this in Maine. We’re hoping in the next few months the Army starts purchasing.”