NATICK, Mass. -- When Army engineer Robert DiLalla set out to develop a new design for Soldier protection, he knew he had to break the mold.
The result of his revolutionary approach, which focuses on the Soldier as an athlete, is the game-changing, Ballistic Combat Shirt, a new lightweight body armor system.
"We set out with this science and technology effort to meet the needs of high-performance athletes, which is what Soldiers are," said Dilalla, the team leader of the Infantry Combat Equipment Team at the Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center.
"I was really focused on the human. How can we do something that, without sacrificing protection, makes them feel like they are not wearing protection and improves their ability to do Soldier tasks?"
DiLalla has been chosen as the recipient of the 2015 Maj. Gen. Harold "Harry" J. Greene Award for Innovation in the Individual-Civilian category. Named in honor of Maj. Gen. Greene, who served as senior commander at the Natick Soldier Systems Center, the award recognizes technological innovations that enhance Army readiness and soldier performance.
"I am extremely pleased that Rob and his team were recognized with this prestigious award for their work on the Ballistic Combat Shirt," said Douglas A. Tamilio, director of Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center.
"This capability significantly increases the protection and flexibility of our personal protective ensemble, ensuring we are giving our Soldiers the edge they need."
DiLalla partnered with co-inventors Protect the Force LLC, a South Boston firm with ties to the athletic apparel industry, to bring his solution to life.
"We needed to stop and reassess how we wear body armor," DiLalla said. "At the same time, we needed to improve integration, reduce complexity and improve Soldier performance."
The invention is a departure from the Interceptor Body Armor system, which was an advancement when it was developed for the Marine Corps in the late 1990s. Over the years, however, the armor system increased in complexity and bulk. As additional components were added, it became difficult for Soldiers to put it on. In contrast, the Ballistic Combat Shirt is easy to don.
"So now instead of having to attach all of these components, you can throw it on like a goalie shirt in hockey," DiLalla said. "It goes on and you don't need a buddy to help you don the system. It's form-fitting so the Soldiers like it. Instead of one panel, the deltoid section is three panels. It's contoured so it stays with you. It moves with you. It has an improved range of motion…"
The Ballistic Combat Shirt is an integrated armor shirt that provides deltoid and thoracic protection, as well as improved neck protection.
"I think it benefits Soldiers in a couple of ways," said DiLalla. "It provides protection, but it also enables them to do their missions better by giving them more range of motion, better articulation. At the same time, it's not complicated. They don't need to pull out a user manual. It's one shirt."
The shirt weighs less that the current Interceptor Body Armor system components it replaces and is less bulky.
"Our goal was to get it contoured, form-fitting, so that the Soldier can do his job without feeling like the equipment is hindering movement," said DiLalla. "We successfully created a product that integrated five components into one, and we were able to reduce weight by 35 percent. It's lighter, form-fitting and more comfortable. It allows Soldiers to feel like they are wearing regular shirts without sacrificing protection."
DiLalla's team also worked with U.S. Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine at Natick to ensure the new shirt wouldn't increase the Soldier's thermal burden compared to the Interceptor Body Armor system.
"We did not want a close-to-skin shirt that can make you hot," said DiLalla. "There was a concern that it would trap body heat more than the current system, but what we found is that it is actually equal to, or in a few instances better than, the baseline."
The invention has been a hit with users.
"The Soldiers have spoken loud and clear with more than 90 percent user acceptance in multiple user evaluations," said DiLalla. "Typically, as we assess new body armor components, we'd consider 60 percent a successful number. So we were quiet surprised..."
The technology is also applicable to the needs of law enforcement.
"There are huge technology transfer possibilities," said DiLalla. "Protect the Force is already commercializing the product to better serve the law enforcement community. I feel extremely proud that not only are we better able to protect Soldiers and other members of the military, but we can also better protect members of law enforcement domestically and abroad."
"As a Soldier and the team's commanding general, I can't praise Rob DiLalla's achievement highly enough," said Maj. Gen. John F. Wharton, commanding general of the U.S. Army Research, Development and Engineering Command.
"It really demonstrates how Army researchers are committed to developing cutting-edge capabilities for the joint warfighter. There's a bigger story beyond that, however, about how the command's partnerships with other organizations and connections to the warfighter positioned the team and gave them the reach into the greater science and technology ecosystem to make this innovation possible. It will also be key to transferring the benefits of this great new technology to first responders in support of the entire nation."
The idea, like most true innovations, was first met with some resistance.
"You need to be responsible, but sometimes you need to take a risk to make progress," said DiLalla. "We needed to start clean and get rid of purely linear thinking, and I think some folks had a hard time grasping the concept."
DiLalla feels very humbled by being chosen for the Maj. Gen. Harold "Harry" J. Greene Award for Innovation.
"It's been a long, tough road," said DiLalla. "We in the NSRDEC are very proud of what's transpired. I've been a tinkerer my whole life. I'm an engineer by degree, and I've always been a product person. I set out to do something novel, revolutionary, with the goal of improving Soldier performance. It's been an incredible experience."
On the way to seeing his innovative idea come to fruition, DiLalla became a team leader at NSRDEC. He wants to instill this spirit of innovation in his team members.
"To create something revolutionary is hard work, but more importantly you have to believe you can do it," said DiLalla. "My goal now, as a team leader, is to mentor the great minds on my team to be creative and think out of the box and not to be purely formulaic. They need to feel empowered because they are absolutely capable of inventing the next great thing."
The U.S. Army Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center is part of the U.S. Army Research, Development and Engineering Command, which has the mission to ensure decisive overmatch for unified land operations to empower the Army, the joint warfighter and our nation. RDECOM is a major subordinate command of the U.S. Army Materiel Command.