April 20, 2024

UMaine ships lifesaving tent panels overseas

ORONO – A shipment of panels designed by researchers at the University of Maine to protect soldiers from explosions was on its way Thursday to a Maine National Guard unit in Afghanistan.

To mark the milestone, Army officials, federal and local legislators and representatives from the university gathered at UM’s Advanced Engineered Wood Composites Center for a product demonstration Thursday morning before the large Army-issued container was fully loaded with a tent, frame and protective panels.

“In research and development, it takes a lot of people working together to make things happen,” AEWC Director Habib Dagher said.

Development of the modular ballistic panels was made possible by a variety of people in the public, private, political and education sectors, he said.

“It’s a very, very important moment for the University of Maine,” UM President Robert Kennedy said.

The tent panel kit that was sent Thursday is headed to the 10th Mountain Division, which includes members of the Maine Guard. The unit’s commander heard about the technology from the Army and asked for a kit to use in the field in Afghanistan.

The first set of panels that was sent to Iraq for evaluation wasn’t as advanced in the research phase as those that were shipped Thursday.

Army Lt. Kevin Harris of UM’s Army ROTC program lauded the project. “It’s light, it’s moveable … it’s going to save lives,” he said.

Harris explained that the vinyl covering of a tent doesn’t have the ability to stop bullet or mortar fragments so that this new technology will be an asset to the military.

“It’s made here in Maine and the first people it’s going to protect is Maine soldiers, and you can’t ask for anything better,” Harris said.

The U.S. Army Natick Soldier Center in Natick, Mass., requested the research and development about 18 months ago. About $900,000 has been spent on the project to date, but it is under budget and ahead of schedule.

The ballistic panels are being made at the UM composites lab in prototype form only, not on a full-scale manufacturing basis. That may change if the Army decides to purchase large quantities of the technology.

The 48,000-square-foot composites facility at the Orono campus has in-house capabilities for creating a composite product or structure from the conceptual stage through research and on through manufacturing of prototypes, comprehensive testing and evaluation, code approval and commercialization.

“One of the great things about the Advanced Engineered Wood Composites Center is the opportunity it provides for our students,” Kennedy said. Projects at the center allow students to “learn while doing.”

Each panel weighs about 70 pounds, has hand grips and can be carried by two people. As demonstrated Thursday by UM students, it can be placed inside a tent and installed with no tools and no additional training.

It has a wood core that’s surrounded by advanced resins and fibers to protect from fragmentation from explosion, Dagher said.

The panels are built to withstand 10 times the pressure of a hurricane. Flexible straps give slightly, preventing the tent frame from being destroyed during the few milliseconds that an average blast lasts, Dagher said.

U.S. Sen. Susan Collins said the technology “sends a message to our troops that, here at home, Americans are working together to increase their safety.”

Just before Christmas, Collins made her third trip to war-torn Iraq and Afghanistan.

“I saw firsthand how important mobility and force protection are to our troops,” Collins said. “This is technology that will do much to protect those who protect us.”

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