New Research Center Will Contribute to Military Armor Design

By Anna Lynn Spitzer

Paul Blair With Students
From left, Feng, along with two members of her team, doctoral candidate Michio Imai and postdoctoral researcher Yoshio Fukuda show the armor and the infra-red scan indicating gaps between layers.

Irvine, Calif., Jan. 18, 2008 --  A new UC Irvine research center directed by a Calit2 academic affiliate could help save members of the U.S. military from harm. The Center for Advanced Monitoring and Damage Inspection, under the direction of Maria Feng, professor of civil and environmental engineering, is developing technology to detect damage and assess the integrity of soldiers’ protective armor. Research results will be incorporated into the design of next-generation armor.
Funded by a five-year contract from the U.S. Army worth up to $5.5 million, Feng and her colleagues are developing new sensors and other evaluation tools that will identify minuscule damage in the armor before its safety is compromised.

Military armor is made with advanced ceramics and fiber composites, Feng says. Cracks in the ceramics and delaminations between the ceramic and fiber composites can cause the material to deteriorate, degrading its ballistic performance.

Paul Blair and student demonstrating the device
Paul Blair and student demonstrating the device
Left: a piece of damaged armor; right, Feng and Fukuda examine the thermal scan.

“Detecting invisible small damage – very fine cracks in ceramics and very small areas of delamination – is a major challenge,” Feng says. The “smart” armor will contain embedded distributed fiber-optic, electric and acoustic sensors, permitting real-time damage assessment.

Researchers also will develop three kinds of hand-held, non-destructive evaluation devices – using infra-red imaging, microwave imaging and ultrasonic imaging – to scan the armor for damage. Previous attempts to evaluate armor required breaking it apart to examine the material. Feng’s devices will allow assessment while leaving the material intact.

The research will initially be focused on lightweight body armor and helmets, but can also be developed for use in tanks, helicopters and planes, which use similar materials.

Feng, who is widely known as the “Bridge Doctor” also designs and researches sensors used to measure structural integrity in buildings and bridges. These civil infrastructure sensors differ from those Feng is designing for the Army, but she says the two types can complement each other.

“Vibration sensors (in buildings) inspect the structure’s global behavior, measuring the change in structural vibration characteristics to detect damage,” she explains. “Once these sensors detect damage, we can use the Army sensors to further evaluate local damage like cracks in steel members, and invisible delaminations between concrete and rebar.”

Feng hopes to see her team’s new sensors deployed in military armor within two or three years. “We have developed some innovative sensor technologies,” she says, “and our preliminary testing results are highly encouraging.”

The Center for Advanced Monitoring and Damage Inspection is located in the Anteater Instructional Resource Building, but Feng gives special credit to Calit2 for her success in winning the contract. “I am very grateful to Calit2 for giving me the space to begin building these sensors,” she says. “That work enabled me to make my proposal to the Army.”

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