The Virtual Soldier Research program at the University of Iowa is expanding from the land to the sea with a nearly $9-million contract from the U.S. Navy. Program director, Karim Abdel-Malek says it’s a five-year contract that expands on their previous work.

He says they have been working mostly with the Army, and that’s why the call it the “virtual soldier” program. Abdel-Malek says they’ve been creating a virtual human called SANTOS, and 60% of the research has been funded by the military and the rest by companies such as Caterpillar, Ford, G.M. and Chrysler.

Abdel-Malek says the companies are all interested in a virtual human who can test things for them. The military application involves finding a way for soldiers to carry their equipment and not be overburdened. He says studies show a soldier carries an average of 92 pounds of equipment.

Abdel-Malek says that’s just their own equipment, and they could also need to carry water and food. He says they are looking at ways to maximize the result of the equipment the soldier carries, while minimizing the weight. Abdel-Malek says they’re also looking at whether it is better to have soldiers wear heavy body armor.

He says it’s a big problem, as they look at whether to have the soldiers wear the armor and be protected, but not be very mobile. Abdel-Malek says they have the problem of finding the optimal way to arm and protect the soldiers and keep them mobile enough to complete the mission. Abdel-Malek is professor of biomedical engineering and says there are some 40 other people from various departments that have worked on the project.

While the latest project looks to lighten the load of the men and women in the Navy, Abdel-Malek says the program is important to civilians as well. For example, Ford would use the technology to develop new production plants. Abdel-Malek says there are typically significant injuries associated with assembly workers as they have to do tasks over and over in a short periods. He says some of the tasks require great force on their arms and their legs.

The company can use SANTOS to design plants to help reduce the manufacturing injuries. The university has commercialized the software to allow it to be used by a variety of private industries.