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Robot mannequin to test UK chemical weapon protection

British engineers have created a robotic mannequin that will help the Ministry of Defence test clothing for protecting against chemical weapons.

The mannequin, which is moved by a motorised frame, can simulate the full leg, arm and head movements of a real person, as well as their breathing, in order to repeatedly test how protective clothing stands up to such action without exposing human users to chemicals.

i-bodi Technology, the company behind the mannequin has previously made similar devices for the French, Canadian and Australian armed forces but said the new technology was more lightweight with a better range of movements, which would help test the next generation of protective suits.

‘The current suit is over-engineered with many layers of carbon and the main thing they want to cut down on is the heat burden,’ said ibodi CEO Jez Gibson-Harris. ‘Fabric technology has moved on and this will help provide new data points.’

The “Porton Man”, named after the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory in Porton Down, Wiltshire, is equipped with over 100 removable sensors to measure any chemical agents that penetrate the protective clothing being tested. It will eventually also have real-time sensors that identify exactly when the agent breaks through any weak points in the fabric.

Made from carbon-composite materials, the mannequin doesn’t simulate body heat and sweat as previous models have, but it does have a more fluid and realistic range of movements thanks to specially written software that controls the Parker servo motors in the stainless steel frame.

As Britain is rare in its use of live chemical agents in testing, iBodi had to build the Porton Man with a limited range of materials and a lightweight, simple design that would allow it to be easily cleaned and passed in and out of the small airlock entrance to the testing chamber. An attachable respirator also enables the system to simulate breathing and so test face masks.

Gibson-Harris, who began his career making models for film special effects including Jabba the Hutt in Star Wars: Return of the Jedi – and his team used digital sculpting software ZBrush to design the mannequin based on anthropometric data on British Army members.

They then worked with local manufacturing firms, who often supply nearby Formula One teams, to produce the mannequin using 5-axis machined patterns and composite moulds, adding smaller parts made with an Objet 3D printer.

Porton Man isn’t a free-moving humanoid robot and so, despite its somewhat sinister appearance reminscent of robots in 1970s science-fiction films, it has little chance of being used for non-test purposes by the MoD.

However Google-owned robotics firm Boston Dynamics, responsible for building the ATLAS and Big Dog robots for the US military, began its development in a similar way to iBodi, creating test devices for armed forces equipment. Gibson-Harris said: ’We would love to [build a free-moving robot] if we could get the investment.’

Readers' comments (1)

  • As our Editor will be aware, much of my career was in the specialised fabric area: and NBC protection was part of this. I did attend trials and tests (I was not in the chamber, but outside!) with the father of this present model! and recall a comment from one of the PR people that inside the chamber was 'the most dangerous place in the UK'.
    One of the in-house staff made a joke about there being an even more dangerous place, 'have you been in/had a meal in our canteen' and was disciplined by the 'Director' for bringing the establishment into disrepute.

    If I recall one of the problems with the original model was that it did not allow for the bellows effect that movement of arms and legs could create possibly drawing 'nasties' into the suit.

    I do recall working with a US client on a related project: we had to design a suit with NBC, ballistic, water, heat, with built-in food input, waste output and communications systems that would allow special forces to operate in an extremely hostile environment for up to 72 hours. I did point out that two 'sides' soldiers similarly equip would be unable to do each other any physical harm, but could call each other rude names over the radio!

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