Iowa Alumni Magazine | April 2006 | Features

A Digital Recruit Tests Body Armor


A typical soldier in many respects, Santos takes orders, bleeds when wounded, feels thirst and fatigue, and sometimes needs to rest from his rigorous Army training. Unlike human soldiers, however, he shrugs off battle scars with a quick computer command.

Santos is a cutting-edge digital human at the heart of a $1.6 million U.S. Army grant awarded to the UI's Virtual Soldier Research (VSR) Program in the College of Engineering's Center for Computer-Aided Design (CCAD). Researchers will use him to test and develop better body armor that not only saves lives and prevents injuries but also allows soldiers to move with ease.

"What's needed is armor that provides full protection without inhibiting agility and flexibility," says Karim Abdel-Malek, professor of biomedical engineering and CCAD and VSR director. "While there's no shortage of new concepts for armor, it's difficult to imagine how the test designs might be evaluated, short of having soldiers serve as test subjects in the field, which is clearly an unacceptable process."

With Santos, no one gets hurt. The VSR researchers plan to turn Santos into the most biomechanically realistic human possible, sophisticated enough to test new armor designs in scenarios that replicate the real-life battlefield. More than just an advanced video game, Santos represents the culmination of expert input from 35 researchers across disciplines as varied as medicine, physiology, computer graphics, physical therapy, and civil and environmental engineering. Big-name companies interested in human simulation technology—such as Caterpillar and Honda—have awarded the VSR almost $10 million in grants and contracts in the past two-and-a-half years.

The VSR's advanced digital human system has also gained national and international recognition, including a recent broadcast on the Discovery Channel (viewable at