News | Jan 11, 2018

Here’s how the US Air Force invented the best fitting burn masks in the world

Air Force biomedical engineer uses laser technology to build an important database of human shapes

News Article Image of Here’s how the US Air Force invented the best fitting burn masks in the world

A pilot waves in an F-16B Fighting Falcon assigned to the 309th Fighter Squadron while taxiing off the runway at Luke Air Force Base on July 7, 2017. (Caleb Worpel/Air Force)

As we pull on our jackets this winter and sit down into our cold car seats, we’re not likely to be thinking about how well those things fit us, but Air Force engineer Jennifer Whitestone is.

The high-tech science behind fit is called anthropometry, the study of human body measurements. And for the U.S. military, anthropometry is key.

Aircraft, for instance, must have a cockpit that accommodates a wide range of body sizes and shapes. The seat has to adjust in a way that gives the pilot sufficient internal and external field of view, and ensure that they can reach all the controls.

The Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio began the CAESAR survey (Civilian American and European Surface Anthropometry Resource) in the mid-1990s.

CAESAR was the world’s first body measurement survey.

“The Air Force had been designing aircraft based on anthropometry data such as stature and sitting height, but the data was from the 1960s,” Whitestone said. “Back then people were tinier, skinnier, and very fit compared to the population we have today, so it seemed like the right time to gather new full-body data.”

Jennifer Whitestone holds one of the masks she created.

Jennifer Whitestone holds a face mask she created using 3-D laser scanning. (photo courtesy of Wright State University)

One of Whitestone’s earliest assignments at AFRL had been to work on producing better-fitting helmets and oxygen masks using new 3-D surface laser scanning technology – more on that later.

Whitestone and her collaborators perfected the technology and expanded the capabilities into a device with full-body scanning capabilities—enabling the launch of CAESAR.

Over the course of several years, researchers set up scanners at various public locations and invited people to participate. Subjects changed into tight-fitting exercise clothes and latex hair caps and had 72 stickers placed on their bodies to fix anatomical landmarks in both sitting and standing positions.

In all, researchers scanned 4,431 civilians in the United States, the Netherlands, and Italy, collecting raw 3-D surface scan data, more than 100 anthropometric measurements, and detailed demographic data.

The body measurement data attracted interest from apparel makers, defense contractors, tractor manufacturers, automakers, and general merchandise retailers. At the outset, companies including General Motors, Boeing, and Levi Strauss partnered with the Air Force to provide input throughout the data collection process.

The CAESAR database was completed under a cooperative research and development agreement between AFRL and the Society of Automotive Engineers International. A final report was published in 2002.

“CAESAR set the foundation for other people to take that anthropometric data and do what they wanted with it,” said Whitestone. “Whether they were from the fashion industry or researchers looking at body fat, the data became available.”

Today, the CAESAR database can be purchased from Shape Analysis, a UK-based company that specializes in 3-D capture systems.

Laser scanning creates 3-D models of human faces that enables custom manufacturing for a precise fit.

But other entities have taken inspiration from CAESAR and created their own surveys using technology and methods pioneered by the Air Force.

In 2017, the U.S. Army released raw data from an anthropometric survey of its personnel to the general public. And a civilian survey many times larger than CAESAR is currently underway by Human Solutions, a human modeling and body scanning company based in Germany.

The “Size North America” survey will include the body measurements, dimensions, proportions, and demographic data of more than 17,000 men, women, and children from the United States and Canada. For this project, new 3-D scanning technology automatically outputs 150 measurements.

Whitestone remembers such a task taking months of work during CAESAR, rather than seconds.

“CAESAR was a good start, but it’s an evolutionary process,” she said. “CAESAR spawned this idea of taking a large survey of 3-D human body data, which helped refine digital modeling techniques and develop new, improved surveys.”

Data points are shown on a 3-D laser scan of a human body.

Whitestone’s work at AFRL’s 711th Human Performance Wing continues to expand on her CAESAR experience. Currently, she and her colleagues are exploring the application of anthropometry to security and surveillance. Their technology, still in development, aims to improve on standard surveillance systems by learning what patterns to expect from a person’s size, shape, or gait.

With 3-D cameras and motion capture data, security personnel could theoretically tell a lot about someone—like whether they are male or female, and if they might be hiding a bomb or carrying a weapon.

The groundbreaking anthropometric work accomplished by AFRL’s Human Effectiveness Directorate has provided valuable insight into the human form for countless military and civilian applications and has had a wide-ranging impact on the commercial marketplace. Without a doubt, technology is a great fit for the Air Force, but also for burn patients.

High-Tech Burn Masks Spring from Air Force Technology

Whitestone was known to be interested in adapting the scanning technology for medical purposes, and in 1997, a local hospital asked if she would make a special burn mask to aid rehabilitation of a severely burned man.

Courtesy Total Contact

Burn masks reduce the buildup of scar tissue by restricting blood flow and holding pressure against the skin. Conventional masks of the time were made by taking a plaster cast of the patient’s face, but fittings could be painful, and the masks—which had to be worn up to 23 hours a day for a year or more—didn’t always fit snugly enough to do much good.

“I didn’t know what a burn mask was, but I said that I could certainly try,” said Whitestone.

When the 58-year-old patient, former high school coach Jim VanDeGrift, arrived at Whitestone’s lab, the two recognized each other.

“I grew up with his kids,” Whitestone said.

“I first knew her as a little girl at church,” said VanDeGrift, “and then as a student at the high school.”

Whitestone scanned VanDeGrift’s face, then an engineering firm constructed a mold and a prosthetics company made the mask.

“He wore it some 20 hours per day, and as a result, his scars started to recede,” Whitestone said. “He looked so good and even started getting mobility back in his mouth and neck.”

Whitestone was so motivated by her work with VanDeGrift and so passionate about the potential to help others that she started a company, Total Contact, to produce burn masks.

When Whitestone started Total Contact, she had no cooperative research and development agreement, no Small Business Innovation Research program funding for support—just her intense commitment and sense of mission. The risk panned out.

Total Contact has now helped broaden the application and scope of the technology Whitestone and her colleagues developed at AFRL, and has produced over 1,000 masks for burn victims all over the world.

The Total Contact masks are vacuum-molded from an individual’s laser scan data for an exact fit, and lined with silicone to keep the skin moist and help the scars heal faster.

As Whitestone points out, the high-tech masks allow burn patients to be fitted before their faces build enough scar tissue to withstand the pain of fitting a traditional mask, so they can begin the healing and repair months earlier than was previously possible.

“I’ve really enjoyed the whole experience of bringing this technology into burn care, and it isn’t just about the process of making masks,” said Whitestone. “I love getting to know the patients and working closely with them.”

The company has branched out into other anthropometric enterprises as well, like a project for the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health to collect measurement data from firefighters from across the country to help equipment suppliers design safer, better-fitting gear.

Whitestone left the Air Force to work on Total Contact full-time in 1998, but she has recently returned to her anthropometric work at Wright-Patterson.

And Whitestone’s parents still live in nearby Lebanon, so she and VanDeGrift see each other regularly, and Whitestone was there to help VanDeGrift celebrate his 20th year of survival.

He keeps the mask stashed somewhere in his house, as a reminder of how fortunate he feels to have had the support of his family and community—and to have been reunited with Whitestone, the little girl from church.

TechLink Editor Troy Carter can be reached at troy.carter@montana.edu or 406-994-7798.

Headshot Image of Quinton King, PhD, CLP

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