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SSC-Natick Press Release

U.S. Army Soldier Systems Center-Natick
Public Affairs Office
Kansas Street
Natick, MA 01760-5012

Contact: Chief, Public Affairs Office
(508) 233-5340
amssb-opa@natick.army.mil

Date: July 30, 2004
No: 04-32

Facility sifts out camouflage design duds

NATICK, Mass. -- Patterns for military camouflage developed in-house or collected from other sources can efficiently be tossed out or retained for further review after scrutiny in the Camouflage Evaluation Facility.

Since its setup in the 1980s, the facility at the U.S. Army Soldier Systems Center here, has provided a controlled environment to view domestic, foreign and experimental camouflage in simulated daytime and nighttime conditions to provide clothing and equipment to help warfighters operate unseen by the enemy.

"The requirements we have are different from hunting camouflage," said Richard Cowan, a chemist on the Materials System and Integration Team. "Animals are not out there looking through passive night vision devices. We also have to protect people in a wide variety of terrain."

Still, he said researchers look at all designs they receive because they never know if they will work. Unsolicited samples of camouflage designs come from any number of places.

"Camouflage is a funny thing. It's subjective and personal to a lot of people, but it's becoming a much more scientific endeavor because of the advances in electro-optical devices," Cowan said. "One guy was working on his design for six years. I looked him up later and found out he worked at an auto shop in Louisiana. (Designing camouflage) was a hobby."

Regardless of its origin, the facility provides a standardized baseline to check against. At the far end of the airy main room are four zones simulating a desert, urban, woodland and arctic setting, giving the backdrop where camouflage patterns are clipped to board, dressed on a manikin or worn by a person. Walls are painted to match the scene. Live trees and plants, bark, soil and sand are used because they give the correct reflectance level essential in checking night vision, according to Cowan, and these components can be adjusted as desired.

Full fluorescent lighting from the high ceiling helps simulate daylight conditions. Calibrated lighting along the sides produces nine night-sky settings from "moonless overcast" to "twilight maximum."

Camouflage patterns are first measured with a spectrometer for reflectance and then compared with visual screenings from various distances up to 50 feet away under every level of lighting. From a balcony at the facility's entrance, researchers look at the patterns through night vision goggles to determine near-infrared and short-wave infrared camouflage protection.

"Numbers will give you a good idea, but visually we can find out how bad it is by looking at how well it blends into the environment," Cowan said.

Buckles, webbing and commercial items out of catalogs have been recent items of interest. Other products evaluated range from face paint, battle dress uniforms, ghillie suits and backpacks to collective protection items such as solar shades and tarps.

Foreign military uniforms, dozens of them already available in storage, and commercial hunting uniforms are typically studied and compared to discover any advantages, according to Cowan.

If a manufacturer has a new material or if there's a question about existing quality, the facility provides the resources to easily inspect it.

Beyond existing designs, the Materials System and Integration Team investigates new camouflage assisted by a digital inkjet textile design and printing system, located in a side room, that avoids the expense of screen production, print pastes and large yardage requirements.

It scans fabrics or photographs into the system, or directly from digitized pattern files or digital photographs; measures samples with a spectrometer; and saves existing colors to the library or creates new colors from the color wheel.

"You can take a photograph of a specific terrain and then design a camouflage to blend in," Cowan said. "It's for a quick visual demonstration. The pattern can be called up on-screen and evaluated on-screen."

Once the desired pattern is electronically created, the inkjet printer rolls out 60-inch-wide pre-treated textile fabrics with reactive or acid dyes.

Standard or experimental fabrics can be printed, and all fabrics are steamed and washed following printing to fix the colors. An average print run is 5 linear yards, much cheaper than in the past when the cost could reach $5,000 just to obtain a minimum yardage rotary screen print trial from a manufacturer, Cowan said.

The inkjet system and facility helped in downselecting designs for the Marine Corps Utility Uniform, and contributed to the design of the new Army Combat Uniform and Future Force Warrior.

"This is where we take the first swipe at it," Cowan said. "We still need to go to the field and area of operation to complete the evaluation, but the facility is a money-saver. If it doesn't work here, chances are it isn't going to work in the field."

For more information about the Soldier Systems Center, please visit our website at: http://www.natick.army.mil.


This page last updated on 23 January 2004.