As well as protecting soldiers from impacts, modern helmets and masks are also designed to provide protection against chemical and biological agents. Such gear requires a powered air purifying respirator to supply air, but these traditionally rely on a separate battery pack and blower unit that is connected to the mask via a hose. The US Army is developing technology for a compact self-contained mask that is not only lighter and less cumbersome, but also helps keep soldiers cool.

With an eye towards technologies that could be integrated into a next-gen mask, scientists at the Edgewood Chemical Biological Center developed a fan that is embedded within a mask's filtration system. The team says this consumes less power and is also lighter and less bulky than conventional respirators, helping to lighten the load for soldiers already burdened with heavy equipment.

Instead of a blower unit hanging off the hip or back, the new system pulls air through a filtration system on the side of the mask by a mini-blower before being directed across the nose cup, providing an even flow of cool, clean air across the face. When the user exhales, the air valve closes and the clean filtered air is diverted into the mask's eye cavity. This over-pressurizes the face piece to prevent outside contaminants entering the mask if the seal is broken.

The Army says that test studies using a modified, commercial version of the M50 joint service general purpose mask, which replaced the M40 Field Protective Mask in the US armed forces in December 2009, was found to be more comfortable for soldiers, while maintaining equal or higher levels of effectiveness when doing things that soldiers do, such as crawling, running, firing rifles and combat maneuvers.

The Edgewood Chemical Biological Center's Respiratory Protection Branch says it plans to develop a number of technologies that have the potential to be integrated into next-gen helmet and communication systems. Amongst these is a mask that uses physiological monitoring to sense when the fan needs to activate and deactivate, or a mode that lets the user control various settings, such as turning the fan on or off, turning the fan on with airflow just to the eye cavity, or turning the fan on with airflow to both the eye cavity and the nose cup.

Source: US Army