USAMRDC Supports Development of Capability to Predict Blast Injury Exposure During Training
A new tool being developed by the U.S. Army Medical Research and Development Command's DOD Blast Injury Research Coordinating Office will help Service Members protect themselves from the effects of high-pressure shock waves created by heavy weapons when they are fired during training.
The Blast Overpressure Tool is an application that provides training range managers, range safety officers, instructors and others with easy-to-understand guidance on how to position personnel to minimize their exposure to shock waves, called blast overpressure, created by the firing of different types of heavy weapons such as mortars, rockets, rifles and breaching rounds. The tool allows users to estimate the blast wave for a particular weapon in a computer model of the training environment to identify the potential safety risks for people in that scenario.
BIRCO is also using the tool to generate visualizations of blast overpressures for specific weapon systems and types of ammunition, which have been incorporated into a portable guide in the form of a pocket-sized flip book. The flip book illustrates the blast overpressure zones for crew members, observers and instructors, lists recommended personal protective equipment and illustrates the radius that blast overpressure extends from the weapon when operated.
"The flip book will be particularly useful for trainers and observers because they are potentially exposed to blast overpressure every time a Service Member fires their weapon," explains Dr. Raj Gupta, BIRCO's deputy director. "For some instructors, that could amount to several blast exposures a day."
Repeated exposure to blast overpressure has been shown to contribute to impaired cognitive performance and decision-making ability. To help the military develop and implement training safety protocols that better protect Service Members, beginning in 2018 the National Defense Authorization Act required the Secretary of Defense to conduct an extensive medical study of the physical effects of exposure to blast overpressure, focused on a selection of high-priority weapon systems. BIRCO is partnering with DHA's Traumatic Brain Injury Center of Excellence, the Army's Combat Capabilities Development Command, the Defense Centers for Public Health – Aberdeen and the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Health Affairs on the study. BIRCO's focus is specifically on the effects of blast overpressure created by heavy weapons and explosive events.
MRDC manages BIRCO's day-to-day coordination and management activities. It was selected to perform the role because of its unique position and expertise as the Army's total life cycle medical research, development, acquisition, procurement and logistical support command.
BIRCO began by conducting extensive background research into current best practices for mitigating blast overpressure throughout DOD. They found that the information provided for individual weapons, use conditions and safety guidance was inconsistent across the services. To help bring more uniformity to this guidance, the BIRCO team adapted computer models of blast exposures, developed as part of a separate Small Business Initiative Research project, to create a prototype Blast Overpressure Tool for standardizing the descriptions of blast wave exposure zones.
"Based on measurements from exposure, the algorithm can calculate the safe distance and location of Service Members," says Gupta. "We adopted that algorithm to develop the prototype blast overpressure tool. We have received two patents for the tool so far," he adds with pride.
The Walter Reed Army Institute of Research led the efforts to collect blast overpressure exposure data during live fire training with four weapon systems: the shoulder fired M136 AT4 recoilless anti-tank weapon, the M120/M121 120mm mortar, the M107 and MK15 .50 caliber sniper rifles and breaching charges. For the live fire tests, researchers fitted personnel with wearable sensors and set up arrays of high-fidelity stationary probes around the firing zone. They then used the collected data to create accurate 3D simulations of blast exposures on human bodies as well as 2D maps of the blast radius at various pressures. This process is described in detail in a paper coauthored by Gupta in the November/December 2023 supplement to the scholarly journal Military Medicine.
"I think that one of the long-term benefits of the Blast Overpressure Tool is that it will reduce or minimize the exposure of Service Members right from the time they start firing weapons," says Gupta.
Once the prototype Blast Overpressure Tool has been fully validated, Gupta says the plan is to expand it to include all the high-priority weapon systems identified in the study, including shoulder mounted assault weapons, rifles and machine guns, howitzers, mortars and breaches. BIRCO is collaborating with the Army and Marine Corps to integrate the Blast Overpressure Tool into the Range Management Toolkit, a suite of advanced geospatial applications that is used to plan safe range exercises. The current RMTK suite does not address blast overpressure exposure mitigation.
BIRCO's research into blast overpressure created by weapon systems also identified several gaps in weapons research, development, testing and evaluation processes that point to opportunities for developing new safety innovations to further protect Service Members. For example, currently there is no requirement to measure blast overpressure as part of weapon system RDT&E and acquisition. Nor is there systematic data on blast overpressure exposure by civilian and contractor personnel during the RDT&E phase of weapon system development. Gupta says that program managers, weapon systems instructors and program analysts have expressed interest in getting more comprehensive information on blast overpressure exposures and mitigation during RDT&E.
"My job is to help preserve fighting strength, so anything I can do to make the Warfighter's life better in the field, I will do," says Gupta. "When you do research, you never know how successful you're going to be. This was a team effort and I think that what we've come up with will make a difference in the lives of Service Members, civilians and contractors when it is fielded. And that makes all our efforts worthwhile."