Matthew Bleakney

Major: Mechanical Engineering

“Effect of gaps in backing support on ballistic performance of body armor”

Matthew Bleakney

Common soft body armor constructions consist of many layers of high performance textile materials enclosed in a protective cover, which is referred to as an armor panel. Front and back armor panels are then inserted into a carrier having straps that are used to secure the body armor “vest” to the wearer’s torso. Most body armor models consist of armor panels that lie flat. The fit of some body armor models is improved by shaping it into a non-planar form; however, standardized testing procedures provide considerable latitude in how the armor should be supported during a ballistic test. For example, the armor panel may be forced flat and placed on a flat clay surface for testing, or the armor panel may be placed on a contoured clay surface that matches the natural curvature of the armor panel. Also being contemplated is the possibility of introducing a standardized bust shape onto which the armor panel would be placed for testing. All of these options introduce questions about whether a potential gap between the armor panel and the clay surface might influence the ballistic performance of the armor panel.

This study investigates the role of an unsupported region behind an armor panel when tested in a flat configuration to generate recommendations for improved test protocols. Tests were performed with no gap (0 mm) between the clay backing support and the armor panel, as well as gaps of 20 mm, 40 mm, and 60 mm. To improve the sensitivity of the ballistic test, the armor panels are assessed at their estimated V50, the speed of a bullet expected to perforate armor 50% of the time. Changes in failure statistics deviating substantially from the expected value indicate some influence due to the gap.

How did you find out that you could do research in your field in the summer?
I always knew there was some kind of research out there in my major, but I took some time to do my own research to learn more about what was available. My first step was to attend a seminar about undergraduate research and summer programs that was offered on campus.

How did you know that research at NIST was what you wanted to do?
I actually didn’t know for sure that NIST research was what I wanted to do, but I ended up making the right decision in the end. NIST is a fabulous place that offers a wider variety of research, along with a strong atmosphere of support and collaboration. Additionally NIST gives me a better idea of what it is like to work in a national laboratory.

Did you apply to other places?
I applied to 16 research programs this summer and only got into 3 or 4. I think it is important to apply to a multitude of places, especially as a lower classman. Upper classman have a lot more experience and thus are more likely to get chosen.

Was the application difficult to do? Did you have help with this?
The application was fairly easy, but the essay took time to write. The hardest part was keeping everything organized. I definitely had a lot of help with my applications. My peers helped revise and edit my personal statements, while staff helped me organize my application and wrote personal statements for me.

What was your summer research project?
I investigated ballistic performance of unbacked soft body armor. We wanted to investigate what happened when a gap is introduced between the vest and a backing material such as an officer or testing surface. Much of my work was split between numerous ballistic experiments on body armor samples and computational analysis.

Who is your mentor for your research, scholarship, or artistic project? How did you arrange to work with this person?
My mentor is Kirk Rice. He works in the Materials Measurements Laboratory under Security Technologies (formerly the Office of Law enforcement Standards) at NIST. I referenced my interests in my personal statement of the application and this led to my position.

How much time do you put into this work? Were you paid? Where did you live?
I put in about 40 hours a week. It varies by a few hours depending on the work flow. I was paid a stipend and was housed in a Quality Inn within the Rockville area. Living at the hotel with the other students working at NIST for the summer was very useful in getting to know people and making long term connections and friendships.

What academic background did you have before you started?
I had just finished my freshman year as an engineer. The background in coding from ENES was very helpful, but having more of a background in statistics would have been very helpful.

How did you learn what you needed to know for this project?
I asked a lot of question and read a lot when I didn’t understand a topic. Google was also very helpful in learning new things, especially code.

What was the hardest part about your research?
Organizing an experiment was the hardest part of my research. There were many factors we wanted to study and there was room for error, so a large amount of time was dedicated to minimizing the amount of experiments being run and error introduced.

What was the most unexpected thing?
The work environment was more relaxed than I envisioned, dress code lean more towards the casual end of everything (except for presentations), and people were friendlier than I thought they would. Often if you asked they would show you what they were working on.

How does this research relate to your course work?
I worked with a lot of statistics and tried to pick up some deformations skills too. Both these subjects relate to classes I will be taking in the fall. My prior ENES prepared me very well by teaching me basic coding skills. Chem 101/102 was also very helpful to know, as it plays a vital part in body armor.

What is your advice to other students about getting involved in research?
Make sure you take advantage of any training offered to you. Take some time learn more about career opportunities in your field, you will be surprised what it out there.

What are your career goals?
My end goal is to be a professor, but I have a strong interest in working in a national laboratory or for government. I have had some thought in going for a PhD in civil engineering or material science.


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