Meet the Scientists: Dan Baechle

Meet the Scientists is an Armed with Science segment highlighting the men and women working in the government realms of science, technology, research and development: the greatest minds working on the greatest developments of our time. If you know someone who should be featured, email us.

Dan Baechle operates the visible part of the Mobile Arm eXoskeleton for Firearm Aim Stabilization (MAXFAS) device which was developed to improve firearm stabilization. The black portion wrapped around Baechle's arm is wired to sensors and a computer system that enables the technology. (Photo: Doug LaFon/U.S. Army Research Laboratory/Released)

Dan Baechle operates the visible part of the Mobile Arm eXoskeleton for Firearm Aim Stabilization (MAXFAS) device which was developed to improve firearm stabilization. The black portion wrapped around Baechle’s arm is wired to sensors and a computer system that enables the technology. (Photo: Doug LaFon/U.S. Army Research Laboratory/Released)

WHO: Dan Baechle is the lead investigator on the Mobile Arm eXoskeleton for Firearm Aim Stabilization (MAXFAS) project. His road to mechanical engineering began early, leading him to a Bachelor of Science degree in theoretical and applied mechanics from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Baechle has helped develop multifunctional composite structures to store energy as capacitors, improving the performance of these structures enough to enable mass and volume savings in Army vehicles. He has patents pending for his work. In 2013, Baechle earned a Master of Science in mechanical engineering at the University of Delaware while working full time at the U.S. Army Research Laboratory (ARL).

TITLE: Mechanical engineer at ARL

MISSION: “We are developing MAXFAS to improve firearm aim stabilization.”

What is your role in developing MAXFAS?
“I am the lead investigator on MAXFAS. We are developing it to improve firearm aim stabilization. The device has motors that pull the arm with cables, like a puppeteer. The motors are mounted behind the subject so it does not add weight directly to the arm. I’ve designed control algorithms to stabilize the arm and damp out the tremors that naturally occur when most people hold their arm out as you would while shooting firearms.

Leading up to my master’s thesis, I came across CAREX (Cable-Driven Arm Exoskeleton for Neural Rehabilitation) –which is a similar device used for rehabilitation– to help people to use their arms after a stroke. It was designed by Dr. Sunil Agrawal and Dr. Ying Mao, who were at the University of Delaware at the time. When I first saw his exoskeleton design, I thought I could redesign it using carbon fiber to make it lighter, as one of my areas of expertise is composite materials. A system that could potentially be worn by the soldier needs to be a light as possible. I also thought I could add functionality. As I looked into the problem further, I saw the potential to modify and improve the exoskeleton for aim stabilization, which ultimately became the subject of my master’s thesis.

Creating the developmental test device and conducting the initial experiments took me a little more than a year.”

What is the goal of this MAXFAS technology?
“Right now, MAXFAS is a developmental test system. Visually, MAXFAS is a large frame with motors on it. The exoskeleton is tied to the motors in a laboratory and tethered to a power supply. The device is not mobile, but the idea is that we could do the basic experiments here at ARL that would allow for a more mature mobile system that soldiers could use routinely to improve their shooting.”

In your own words, what is it about this technology/science that makes it so significant?
“Imagine the benefits of using an image stabilizer for a camera when the photographer is capturing action shots. MAXFAS provides that level of stability for your entire arm during the critical moments of aiming and shooting. The MAXFAS exoskeleton senses the tremors in your arm that you probably don’t even realize exist. The control algorithms for the device dramatically reduce the shake without locking your arm in place. This is the first time that we know of that an exoskeleton has been used in to improve aim and shooting performance. Typically, exoskeletons are devices designed for strength or endurance enhancement.”

How could you use MAXFAS to aid the military or help with military missions?
“As a mechanical engineer, I start with an end vision in mind, which we know will evolve. But it is the predicted future uses for the device that guide the structural design, control algorithms and type of experiments we conduct. I see two potential uses for MAXFAS based on the initial tests. My initial experiments showed that after subjects wore MAXFAS and then performed a shooting trial, they performed better – even after removing MAXFAS – than they performed in their initial trial. Of course we have to perform more tests to find out how long that effect lasts, but these initial results indicate that MAXFAS could be used to train soldier marksmanship faster and more effectively. The other potential use is more interesting and harder to reach, and that is that MAXFAS would become an untethered mobile device that could be worn by combat arms soldiers on the battlefield to actively improve shooting performance.”

What do you think is the most impressive thing about this technology?
“For me, it is an interesting, complex problem involving the interaction of humans, materials and machines. Plus, it doesn’t get much cooler than an exoskeleton that makes you shoot better! No matter how advanced weapons technology becomes, the military will still need soldiers to fire weapons. Human factors like fatigue and involuntary tremors in the arm, and difficult situations like shooting under fire or shooting on the move will always be present, and always be detrimental to soldiers’ shooting performance. My vision is that one day, a more mature version of MAXFAS could be used to improve aim despite all these detrimental factors and scenarios.”

What got you interested in this field of study?
“I was on the path from an early age to be a mechanical engineer. From the time I first started reading about exoskeletons in science fiction I was fascinated. Although the current state of technology hasn’t caught up with what we see in movies like Iron Man, I don’t think we are far away as with exoskeletons. We are making great progress toward making science fiction a reality, and I think we’ll see that in exoskeletons within the next 20 years.”

Are you working on any other projects right now?
“I work with multifunctional materials, for instance creating high-voltage capacitors out of advanced composite materials. The concept is that we could have capacitors that could carry a structural load in addition to storing energy. For instance, a panel in a vehicle that serves a dual purpose of load-bearing structure and of storing large amounts of energy, for the application of directed-energy weapons or reactive armor.”

If you could go anywhere in time and space, where would you go and why?

“If I could go anywhere in time and space, I’d like to go about 200 years into the future to see what type of technology people use and how the way of life has changed.”

“I’d also like to go back 14 billion years to see what there was before the big bang, because it is one of the big remaining questions in astrophysics, as well as a philosophical question for me. As far as I can tell based on today’s science, we may never know.”

What else would you like for us to know about your work?
“When my team leader, Dr. Eric Wetzel, and I saw CAREX and hypothesized that there was potential for such a device to improve aim by stabilizing the arm, I did not know where the research would go. I think it was a good challenge, but also fun to create the device and run the experiments. I could not have done it without Dr. Sunil Agrawal and Dr. Eric Wetzel and their guidance. Having mentors and multidisciplinary collaboration throughout the process is important to what we do because it prevents you from become stuck in any one way of thinking.

If there is anything about me personally that contributes to success, it is my work ethic and my ability to communicate and receive feedback.”

Thanks to Dan Baechle for contributing to this article and for his contributions to the science and technical communities.

For more information about Baechle’s work, read his recent public releases:

 

Yolanda R. Arrington is the content manager for Armed with Science. She is a journalist and social media-ista with a flair for moving pictures and writing.
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