NATICK, Mass. -- For the fourth year in a row, the Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center's Bootstrap Initiative has enabled employees to come up with ingenious, cost-effective solutions for the warfighter.

Dr. Ken Desabrais, previously an NSRDEC research aerospace engineer and now NSRDEC's human protections administrator, conceived the Bootstrap Initiative. It was implemented to encourage innovation and creativity while streamlining processes and minimizing bureaucracy.

Through the program, government civilian NSRDEC employees are allowed to submit proposals for a new technology, research project, business process, or administrative process that supports NSRDEC's science and technology, or S&T, mission.

NSRDEC is dedicated to researching and developing cutting-edge food, expeditionary maneuver support, clothing and airdrop technologies and products to optimize warfighter performance and lethality.

Although Bootstrap is intended to reduce red tape and encourage innovation, there are still some submission restrictions. For instance, ideas must be able to be carried out for $50,000 or less. Funding cannot be used to fund a contractor or external contract. The effort must be executed quickly.

NSRDEC's Bootstrap Initiative not only gives employees the chance to propose ideas, they also have the chance to vote on which ideas receive funding. Pitch Day is a key part of this process. During Pitch Day, proposers are given the chance to garner employee voter support for their ideas by making posters, displaying prototypes, creating interactive displays and conducting show-and-tell sessions.

Dr. Charlene Mello, NSRDEC's chief scientist, believes that the Bootstrap Initiative fosters innovation and taps into the incredible creativity of NSRDEC's workforce. The initiative also facilitates opportunities for collaboration.

"Creating an opportunity for people to get to know one another, share ideas and strive toward solutions for Soldier-centric problems represents the essence of Bootstrap," said Mello. "The passion, creativity and technical expertise that our workforce brings to these challenges motivates me each and every day. Pitch Day provides us all with a day to recognize such contributions and celebrate our community."

NSRDEC's Deb Anderson led the execution of the entire Bootstrap program this year. Anderson, who works in the office of NSRDEC's chief scientist, likes the excitement and creativity generated by Pitch Day and views the Bootstrap program as being particularly important during times of austere S&T budgets.

"This is the fourth year for Bootstrap and I think the energy level has remained high," said Anderson. "It's still a relatively small program that generates a lot of enthusiasm. People are putting in better proposals each year. This year, there is a new requirement for everyone to have a poster; this will really help the workforce come to appreciate their coworkers' efforts."

For Bootstrap 2018, employee voters chose 22 projects for funding. "Development of a Personnel Parachute Canopy Release" was one of the proposals chosen.

Kevin Connolly, a mechanical engineer in NSRDEC's Aerial Delivery Directorate, explained that as part of ongoing efforts to reduce the Soldier's load, "all hardware components of the parachute harness are being looked at as possible areas of weight reduction, with the canopy release assembly, or CRA, being one of these hardware components."

"The CRA is a critical hardware component for the airborne Soldier that secures the parachute canopy to the parachutist while coming down from the plane to the ground and allows the Soldier to release from the canopy when on the ground," said Connolly.

He explained that Bootstrap funding would enable the investigation of new CRA designs as well as the building and testing of prototypes that are lighter than the current CRA.

"Hot Hands, Toasty Toes -- Keeping the Extremities Warm" was another idea chosen by Bootstrap voters.

Kristine Isherwood, a mechanical engineer in NSRDEC's Soldier Protection and Survivability Directorate, explained that the project aims to move heat to the extremities with zero power consumption and negligible weight penalty during operations in extreme cold, e.g., dismounted operations and high altitude free fall.

"The goals are to reduce the risk of cold weather injury to the extremities, to maintain fine motor movement, and to increase the thermal performance of and extend the operating temperature of the cold weather clothing system without added weight and bulk," said Isherwood.

Isherwood noted the importance of Bootstrap funding.

"The Bootstrap Initiative is just as vital to funding an idea whose output can be applied to an on-going program, as it is to funding an idea around which a program can be formed," said Isherwood. "If successful, I think this idea will help with warfighter readiness because even before they engage the enemy, they will encounter the environment, and the environment doesn't take sides!"

In addition to helping aid the development of products and technologies that benefit the warfighter, Bootstrap also helps NSRDEC's STEM outreach efforts through projects such as "The Science Behind the Soldier." The interactive station was conceived and developed by NSRDEC's Peggy Auerbach. Auerbach was the primary author of the proposal and NSRDEC's Jo Ann Ratto was the coauthor. The project was awarded Bootstrap funding in 2017. In 2018 an expanded version called "The Science Behind the Warfighter -- Part 2" was once again chosen for funding by Bootstrap voters.

Anderson summed up the spirit and importance of the Bootstrap Initiative and Pitch Day.

"It's all about good science and enjoying the effort," said Anderson. "Strong proposals. High energy. Small dollars. Big fun."

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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 provide innovative research, development and engineering to produce capabilities that provide decisive overmatch to the Army against the complexities of the current and future operating environments in support of the joint warfighter and the nation. RDECOM is a major subordinate command of the U.S. Army Materiel Command.