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U.Va. students seek to improve military body armor

Posted on February 28, 2009 - Filed Under Body Armor |

The most stalwart medieval knight probably griped about the crippling weight of his shining armor. The metal’s inflexibility left plenty to complain about as well. And there was its nasty tendency of allowing sharp edges and pointy-tipped projectiles through cracks and creases.

Things haven’t changed much. The nation’s combat forces continue to deal with these same shortcomings, despite tremendous advancements in modern body armor.

U.S. Army Sgt. Jeff O’Dell saw vivid examples of body armor saving American lives during his deployment in Iraq. The University of Virginia second-year student also knows how Enhanced Small Arms Protective Inserts can restrict movement and fail to stop multiple bullets. The four bulky ceramic plates now in use in protective vests used by American forces are also heavy, bringing the weight of a vest to nearly 30 pounds.

“I was deployed in Iraq as a fire support specialist from August 2005 to December 2006,” said O’Dell, who is serving in the National Guard while attending U.Va. “Our armor vest had single ceramic plates in the front, back and on each side.

“The vest has saved the lives of some of my buddies, but having worn it a lot I know it can be improved upon. It’s too heavy, it doesn’t stop multiple rounds and it doesn’t flex,” O’Dell said.

“I really think it’s something that needs to be fixed.”

Last September O’Dell seized upon an opportunity to possibly help save countless lives in the future maybe even his own. As a double major in biomedical engineering and mechanical engineering, he took a Design Discovery class that introduces second-year students to conceptual and practical design work. The class educates students on how to come up with novel products and ultimately market them.

O’Dell teamed up with Ann Bailey, Adam Rogers and Dan Abebayehu. When the student-soldier proposed the idea of creating a better armor vest the others quickly signed on.

“I had family members in the military so this hit close to home for me,” said Bailey, who is from Elkton. “And I like the idea of working with something that will actually be beneficial to someone.

“This project has been a real opportunity to work on something that will actually make a difference. I also like the fact that we’re at a school with so many resources and where the professors are so willing to help.”

The armor vest project quickly became more than an exercise in how to get a passing grade.


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