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Tomorrow's soldier: powered, spring-loaded and located

Annual competition showcases innovative ideas

Soldiers working in sunny but remote areas, in places such as Iraq and Afghanistan, might get a new boost of power for their electronic devices thanks to an innovative design for backpack-mounted solar cells designed by MIT students. And those exploring caves or urban environments where GPS signals are blocked may get a better way to figure out where they are thanks to a tiny, ingenious navigation unit developed by another MIT team.

These were among the winners in the annual Soldier Design Competition, organized by MIT's Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies. The event drew six entries from MIT teams, and another six from cadets at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, all competing for $23,000 in prize money.

West Point teams won the first and second places, with a rechargeable battery system for field radios and a spring-loaded retractable gunner's seat for Humvees, which are frequently involved in rollover accidents. MIT's top finisher was a team called Helios, which developed a high-efficiency solar cell array rugged enough to be worn on a backpack.

These space-rated solar cells are very lightweight but fragile, so the trick was finding a way to package them to stand up to the rigors of life in a combat theater. The team found a way to embed the thin cells in a plastic housing that is flexible and tough.

Two MIT sophomores, Ted Blackman and Josh Siegel, won a $3,000 prize for their navigation device. Using tiny gyroscopes and inertial sensors packaged in a housing that could slip into a shirt pocket, the device could not only help soldiers in places where GPS doesn't reach, but might also be useful for first-response emergency personnel in buildings or underwater to keep track of their locations.

Another MIT prizewinner is a stealthy surveillance device that could be used to allow continuous security monitoring of an area. It consists of tiny cameras mounted inside a simulated rock. As a test, the team left one right in front of the main MIT entrance on Massachusetts Avenue for several hours on a busy afternoon. Nobody noticed it, they said.

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