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DARPA calls on industry to develop compact, push-button wall

Jul. 5, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  
DARPA officials are partnering with industry to develop a barrier in a can, which could self-deploy with the push of a button and be used downrange instead of Hesco barriers, or perhaps even as a personal protective shield.
DARPA officials are partnering with industry to develop a barrier in a can, which could self-deploy with the push of a button and be used downrange instead of Hesco barriers, or perhaps even as a personal protective shield. (Cpl. John McCall/Marine Corps)
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The military’s lead research agency is working to develop what some are calling a ballistic “wall in a can.” The futuristic device could be used to quickly form walls at a forward operating base or even to provide individuals under fire with near instant emergency cover, all at the push of a button ... well, at least notionally.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency challenged industry to submit “novel approaches to autonomously construct a barrier without human intervention,” according to a notice posted in June to FedBizOpps.gov. In other words, Marines would be able to set a compact container down, push a button and poof — instant barrier. Submissions were due by Wednesday.

A miniature version might be able to cover an individual stranded in the open under fire, while a larger version might be able to encircle a forward operating base with ballistic walls or provide emergency shelter.

Exactly what the product would look like, or what it might be constructed of, is being left to industry, but DARPA is calling the effort BlockADE, short for Block Access to Deny Entry.

“These deployable systems are expected to have many potential applications, ranging from blocking access to munitions caches to creating temporary buildings for those impacted by natural disasters,” the solicitation reads.

In recent years the Marine Corps has conducted its own experiments with shelters made of concrete-impregnated cloth. Conducted in 2012 in Japan, those experiments used folded shelters carted in a relatively compact, albeit heavy, package, weighing between 1.9 and 3.1 tons. They were quickly inflated with an air bladder, soaked with water and cured into hard, fire-retardant structures. The system offered expedited ballistic protection in about 24 hours. Because of weight and cure time, however, that material likely would not fit the bill for DARPA’s current efforts.

Size and weight constraints for the BlockADE project are set at less than a foot in diameter, 6.5 feet in length and 300 pounds. That is the maximum, however. Because DARPA has given industry an open-ended requirement, that opens the door to speculation that a small, lightweight version could be carried by individual Marines.

In other words, a Marine who finds himself pinned down by enemy fire in an open field with nowhere to run would be able to pop a can of ballistic material that would expand to many times its original size and provide him with something to hunker down behind.

In its larger forms, it could potentially work like an instant Hesco barrier. Rather than spending hours filling barriers with earth by hand or frontloader, Marines could set out an array of BlockADE devices, activate them and have an instantly fortified forward operating base.

No matter what form they take, the barriers must be able to deny or slow access to a person with hand tools like a saw, hammer, axe or shovel, according to the notice to industry.

Ultimately, the futuristic devices could be constructed of robust hardening foams, alloys, monomers or any number of advanced expanding materials. Those could take the form of solid barriers, or web or briar-like barriers that might be sticky or sharp.

DARPA would also like the barriers to be see-through, and wants the whole self-deploying aspect of the devices to be reversible, so that troops could regain access to a blocked area, for example, a weapons cache.

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