Batman would be jealous.
Real-life crimefighters could soon be getting high-tech, military-style outfits that would rival anything the caped crusader had in his fabled Bat suit and utility belt.
The new gear, dubbed LECTUS for Law Enforcement/Corrections Tactical Uniform System, comes courtesy of researchers at the U.S. Army's National Protection Center at the Soldier Systems Center in Natick, Mass., where they have been working for years to modify some of the latest military innovations for use by police on the home front.
Equipped with a LECTUS outfit, cops would be able to see in the dark, absorb bullets and blows without harm, communicate with others with a simple whisper, see through the eyes of remote team members, and walk through clouds of noxious chemicals or smoke without missing a step.
"This could all happen with the blink of an eye," said Rita Gonzalez, director of NPC. "We're so close it's not even funny."
A Suit for the Blues
LECTUS was conceived as a modified version of the military's so-called Land Warrior system — a project that equips soldiers with high-tech communications gear, sensors and weapons. And much of the proposed LECTUS gear, say researchers, has already been field-tested in combat by troops in Afghanistan and Iraq.
One part of the LECTUS uniform is an improved helmet called the MICH, or Modular Integrated Communications Helmet. The head gear contains an improved communication setup that does away with the traditional microphone. Instead, MICH uses a "bone-conducting" system that picks up vibrations from the skull when the wearer speaks.
Audio from the radio is produced from built-in headphones that also act as "active protectors." Microphones on the outside of the helmet monitor for sharp, loud noises — gunshots, explosions from flash-bang grenades — and automatically mute before they can shatter an officer's hearing.
Future versions of the helmet, say military researchers, would add more capabilities.
A built-in GPS unit, for example, would provide officers with precise location information. Meanwhile, a small infra-red camera attached to the side would allow police to search darkened rooms or through smoke without requiring a bulky flashlight. Data such as the live video from other LECTUS-equipped officers can be displayed on a tiny screen that floats in front of the wearer.
Sleek and Supple
The material for LECTUS' uniform is nothing extremely exotic for now. Until "smart fabrics" can be identified and created, the shirts and pants of the uniform are mixtures of Cordura nylon and Spandex sections that allow for flexibility and more mobility for the wearer. Standard body armor made of Kevlar and ceramic plates offers protection against 9mm bullets.
Eventually, as smart nanotechnology materials are developed, they could be incorporated into the LECTUS design. The fabric, composed of thin strands of tubes filled with magnets that automatically stiffen against impacts, would offer better protection while saving weight and bulk.
Gonzalez says that traditional tactical uniforms worn by SWAT teams and prison guards aren't the best for certain situations. She notes, for example, that sometimes SWAT teams are called to perform in tough and tight spaces, such as airplanes.
"The [Boston Police] that got the shoe bomber off the airplane two years ago were wearing outfits that were very bulky," says Gonzales. "LECTUS streamlines the operator to get in and out of airplanes and vehicles quickly."
Input From the Boys in Blue
LECTUS equipment and technology is still in the developmental phase. But some of the technology, such as the MICH helmets, are already being tested by some law enforcement agents, says Lawrence Kosiba, president of the Office of Law Enforcement Technology Commercialization, a part of the Justice Department's that is working with the NPC towards modifying military technology.
And other developments, such as new LECTUS uniform materials, are being tested constantly. One such development, a new chemical suit, was recently field-tested in a mock prison riot drill at an annual OLETC gathering in Wheeling, W.Va.
The suit, says Kosiba, was designed to be semi-permeable and allows the wearer's body heat and sweat to escape, while keeping out harmful chemical agents such as tear gas — a much needed improvement over what riot officers and prison guards now wear.
"I'm from a fire and military background with 27 years of experience," said Kosiba. "And I've worn some of the charcoal rubber suits, like the old Gulf [War] apparel, that couldn't let out the heat and steam and wasn't breathable. Those were monsters."
Still, Kosiba admits that LECTUS still has plenty of ways to go. "We found some [military] equipment that just wasn't suitable," he said.
For example, for the Land Warrior program, the military had developed a system that would allow soldiers to instantly track where other members were. Such "situational awareness" capabilities are designed to prevent friendly fire incidents.
While such a system could be beneficial for SWAT members and prison guards that need to storm an occupied building from multiple entrances, it was impractical since it was the size of a backpack.
"And it wouldn't work for correctional officers because if an inmate got a hold of it, it could be dangerous for fellow officers," said Kosiba.
But he says that since OLETC is working with the NPC and military researchers, he's confident that law enforcement agencies could really benefit from the technologies.
"This is one of the federal programs that makes sense," said Kosiba. "You are already spending the tax dollars to develop this technology for the military, why not put it to good use?"
And NPC's Gonzalez says the feedback from OLETC is also helping to fuel further developments on the military side as well.
"As far as we're all concerned, one agency just can't do this all alone," said Gonzalez. "It will take a collaboration of users and agencies and teams to make it happen."
Since LECTUS is still in conceptual testing stage, researchers haven't been able to say how much a fully integrated police uniform may cost. But researchers are confident that costs will be significantly lower than any military Land Warrior system, a program that the military has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on over the last decade.
"Let's just say that creating the LECTUS won't cost as much," said Gonzalez. "It's not even close to [being] a multimillion-dollar program."
And since the technology development is shared with the existing Land Warrior program, LECTUS could be ready for law enforcement agents as soon as 2005.