Under the Skin: Implantable Armor Testbed
The scars aren’t all that noticeable, really. Just a few little hash marks over the bone of the wrist. But they mark the site of the installation of a first for the bodyhacker community: subdermal reactive armor.
“It’s one of the oldest ideas in our group,” said bodyhacker Mark Proteus (an obvious pseudonym, by his request), who had the operation done. “I figured, why not just do it?”
The basic idea isn’t complicated. First, identify an area of the body where protection might be useful, but also where it’s easy to install and remove implants. The forearms and shins are the first logical locations. (Apparently, doing anything with fingers is tricky… I thought subdermal brass knuckles would be pretty sweet, but this is why no one lets me conduct their surgeries.). The first implant completed was an approximately three inch rod of tubing filled with D3O inserted into the forearm, just above the bones of the wrist.
Choosing the material for filling the implant was difficult. Testing began with the kid’s trick of corn starch in water in a plastic bag. “We knew we wanted something non-Newtonian (that is to say, sheer-thickening – a material that hardens when struck), so we tried it out externally,” explained Mark, relieving my concerns that he had installed a third grade science fair project in his arm. “Then we moved to D3O – they use it in motorcycle armor. Not the same thing.”
A length of medical grade tubing was filled with D3O, a kind of commercially available non-Newtonian fluid. When struck with sufficient energy, this material turns from a liquid to a solid, becoming a durable chunk of rigid substructure inside the tubing. According to Mark, this is accompanied by “something of a pinching sensation,” although I warn the discerning reader that pain tolerance is a high priority in the bodyhacker community and the “pinching sensation” may be something of an understatement. Then the material deliquesces after a few seconds, returning to a flexible liquid state.
The initial testbed was implanted in the wrist location and allowed to sit for several days. But after a few days, the implant team was concerned about implant and the possibility it had been nicked going in. The first device was removed and replaced with a second implant that had undergone more extreme stress testing. “Basically I hit it with a hammer as hard as I could, seventy or eighty times,” explained Mark. “No fluid escaped, so we were good.”
The subdermal testing was somewhat more subdued, thankfully, and required some days to heal. Basically it consisted of standard daily wear and impact against bricks, rocks, and cement in an urban exploration environment. Eventually, after several weeks, it was determined that while the implant was not compromised it was probably beaten up enough that it could be spared further research. It was removed and the implant site sewn up to allow for normal healing.
I spoke with Cassox, the rogue medic who implanted and removed the testbed in the first place. “First of all, external armor would probably always be better,” he admitted. “But the main effect is, it’s always with you, almost invisible. And it has offensive uses. A ridge of this stuff down your forearm could block a baseball bat, spreading out the impact. Imagine the effect that would have on an opponent!”
Since the initial work with Mark, Cassox has gone on to conduct further research. The next set of implants were a pair of twelve inch lengths inserted into the shins of a serial bodyhacker (who will remain anonymous for the purpose of this article, by their request) which rejected fairly quickly and had to be removed. “Next time, I’ll put in drains,” said a thoughtful Cassox, although he did blame some portion of the failure on an incautious medication regime from the implantee. (The rough and ready community of bodyhackers called “grinders” is notorious for this kind of laissez-faire of the flesh, which is met with almost unilateral horror by medical professionals.).
A number of possibilities were discarded right off the bat. My idea of self-stiffening brass knuckles was (correctly) laughed off. Reinforcing the base of the hand for better martial arts performance was also a nonstarter – working within the hand seems to have too high a risk of serious impact to manual dexterity, and the boxer’s fracture that frequently occurs in martial artists seemed to indicate it was better to avoid relying on the structural anatomy in that area anyway.
Further areas of research that both Mark and Cassox intend to explore include experimenting with functional shapes – for example, lateral stripes down the forearm for spreading out the impact of a blunt force trauma. Other possibilities include either a titanium mesh coating (this sounds breathtakingly painful to me, but science is a harsh master) or a titanium rod insert for the implant. “As it is, this is a strictly one use thing, you wouldn’t want to risk it rupturing and leaking into your body,” said Cassox. A knife blow or particularly aggressive hammer assault would probably necessitate removal just in case – a coating such as the titanium mesh mentioned above would improve the durability of the implant as a whole.
Like so many of the innovations we’ve had this last year, this implant was a testbed designed to prove that something was possible rather than a medical or commercial effort. Working for free in basement labs and remote desert outposts, the bodyhackers and grinders put flesh to new and exciting purposes. Though this particular armor implant was a short-term one, the data recorded will be invaluable to the next set. Science, or at least the strange half-aesthetic half-maniac variety cultivated by the grinders, marches on.