SSC Developing Multiple Uses for Airbeam Technology
Inflatable structural supports, also called airbeams, have swelled into a variety of products, and a team of engineers at the Center of Excellence for Inflatable Composite Structures headquartered at the U.S. Army Natick Soldier Center’s Collective (SSC-Natick) Protection Directorate form the backbone of research into the technology. With the assistance of industry partners Vertigo Inc. and Federal Fabrics-Fibers Inc., airbeams are finding uses in the Army, Air Force, Navy, and even outer space, shrinking the military’s logistics tail and vastly reducing the weight of deployed structures.
Airbeams are manufactured by continuous braiding or weaving of a high-strength 3-D fabric sleeve to provide structural strength over an air-holding bladder. What results is a smooth, durable and seamless tube anywhere from 2-40 inches in diameter set at different pressures, depending on the support needed. Each collapsible tube has a built-in valve for a fill-up from a commercial air compressor modified with an automatic shut-off. By changing design parameters, the airbeam shape can be modified for different products. The SSC-Natick team guided and matured two weaving and braiding capabilities into a reliable technology, and in the process created an economical manufacturing base.
For tents alone, the technology is credited with trimming up to two-thirds of the weight, shrinking into less than one-fourth the volume when packed and shedding more than half the setup time. Units from Fort Riley, Kan., and Fort Bliss, Texas, are helping to evaluate the Small Tactical Airbeam Tent, for rapid transition of airbeam-supported shelters to the field. The Standard Integrated Command Post System also could become an airbeam-supported tent, and similar designs were used in an exercise by the Departments of Homeland Security and Defense to protect people and unmanned aerial vehicles used by the Border Patrol.
A project on a large shelter called the Transportable Helicopter Enclosure led to the Chemically and Biologically Protected Shelter System, which was fielded in 2003. The low-pressure system deploys connected to a Humvee and is equipped to treat contaminated patients. Other medical shelters in development are the Future Medical Shelter System and 21st Century Military Hospital System, both designed for pre-operative and post-operative care in an environment protected against chemical and biological agents.
Unlike the Chemically and Biologically Protected Shelter, which is connected to a Humvee, the new system will be designed to be self-sustaining so it can be separated from the vehicle. With photovoltaics like Konarka’s flexible camouflaged panel technologies, it could provide its own generator power to fill up with the air compressor.
SSI-Natick believes that larger the scale, the larger the payoff that airbeams represent over conventional structures. The Air Force awarded a contract to Vertigoin June 2004 to develop the Large Shelter System, which will serve as an aircraft hangar as part of an expeditionary base. On a smaller scale, airbeams are spreading into ship fenders, ejection seat stabilizers, high-glide deployable parachute wings, inflatable ladders, pollution containment booms and fuel bladders. Miles above, NASA has applied the technology for a 60-foot inflatable airbeam extension boom for a shuttle remote manipulator system to enable astronauts to perform external in-orbit inspection and repair. The agency also is interested in inflatable antennas.
Spin-offs from the manufacturing technology include low-cost rigid composite nose cones for missiles and the next-generation chemical and biological agent-resistant laminated fabric.
As Amy Soo Leighton, a chemical engineer on the Fabric Structures Team, noted:
bq. “The technology was around, and people were working on inflatables, but there was no standard in the industry in design or performance, so we wanted all the expertise in one place to design (a customer’s) particular composite for different applications… We can think of a lot of applications at Natick, but others think of areas that we never expected [like an airbeam design to quickly move a generator off a vehicle]. We know the technology well enough to meet their standards and have the capability in-house to design (the structures) taking into consideration safety and failure methods.”
For their efforts, the engineers won a 2005 Federal Laboratory Consortium Award for Excellence in Technology Transfer, which will be presented in May 2005. The award recognizes laboratory employees who have accomplished outstanding work in the process of transferring federally-developed technology to the marketplace. A panel of experts from industry, state and local government, academia and federal laboratory system judge nominations.
Airbeam technologies were one of the research priorities mentioned in the Army’s 1998 Army Science and Technology Master Plan, Section F: “Individual survivability and sustainability.”