SPINELLE Defense Technology Project: development of a cutting-edge armor material
(Source: French Defense Innovation Agency; issued July 21, 2020)
(Unofficial translation by Defense-Aerospace.com)
The French firm Solcera has developed an ultra-light nanostructured ceramic armor that is practically as transparent as glass and over six times more resistant; it is seen here during flight-testing on a French Army Caracal helicopter. (Solcera photo)
Led by Solcera, an SME, in cooperation with Nexter and Airbus Helicopters, the Directorate General for Armament (DGA) and the Defense Innovation Agency, the SPINELLE project aims to develop a light transparent armor solution for land vehicles and helicopters.

Improve crew safety

This study, launched in November 2014 for a period of 5 years, responds to a crucial need: that of optimizing the protection of the glass parts of in-service and future helicopters.

The helicopters of the Army Light Aviation (ALAT) are regularly deployed on foreign theaters of operations, and are therefore exposed to possible enemy fire. Although they are equipped with the latest technologies to guarantee the performance and safety of their crew and passengers, the glass parts of these aircraft are difficult to protect.

A weight-related problem

If a classic window armor (on a presidential car for example) made up of superimposed layers of laminated glass offers good ballistic performance, it is very heavy. While it is unimportant for a car, weight is of the utmost importance when it comes to helicopters. The glass solution is therefore unusable in aviation.

The challenge of the project was therefore to develop a light, ultra-resistant material, as transparent as glass and adaptable to different types of vehicles, and at an affordable price.

A unique material for conclusive results

To develop this technical solution, the DGA called on Solcera, a French company specializing for many years in the design and manufacture of advanced ceramics as well as in glass-metal and ceramic-metal assembly.

After several years of research, Solcera has developed an ultra-light nanostructured ceramic (specific density of 3.48), six times more resistant than glass (300 MPa), more than 80% as transparent for a cost about 30% lower than the price of sapphire.

This new technology is implemented in the form of an assembly of plates (150mm x 150mm), and in its aeronautical version offers Level 2 ballistic protection (withstands 7.62mm bullets) and is 50% lighter than a conventional transparency.

In February 2020, for the first time, this transparent armor was tested in flight on a Caracal helicopter. The tests were very satisfactory, as the material is resistant to vibrations and offers perfect visibility to the crews, day and night, even in rainy weather.

Outlook

Several areas for improvement have been identified to perfect this solution:
-- Produce larger plates (300mm x 300mm) to improve visibility and further increase the strength of the material; and
-- Produce multi-curved plates to obtain a product completely adaptable to the different glazed surfaces of a helicopter

Work has been extended until the end of 2021 to meet these new targets. Transparent armor protection on the glass parts of the pilot and aircraft commander’s doors of the NH90 in its "Special Forces" version is already being considered and could be quickly tested.

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