SDC History

The Soldier Design Competition (SDC) was established in 2003 to engage undergraduate students from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the activities of the Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies (ISN), and in 2004 was expanded to include cadets from the United States Military Academy at West Point (USMA). Beginning with SDC16, the finals of which will be held in April 2019, the competition has become the ISN-Lincoln Laboratory Soldier Design Competition thanks to a new partnership with MIT Lincoln Laboratory.

Drawing on the academic, military, and industry communities that make up the ISN and Lincoln Lab, the SDC provides students with hands-on experience in the design and prototyping of technology solutions to real world problems in protection, survivability, and mission capabilities faced by Soldiers, other warfighters, and first responders. Specific challenges are tied to the six U.S. Army Modernization Priorities, plus an open design challenge that is defined by the team in consultation with the SDC Coordinator.

A panel of leaders from the Army, industry, and MIT determines winning prototypes. To date, the SDC has engaged more than 400 MIT students and USMA cadets, and has spawned more than a dozen startup companies.

The SDC provides a unique opportunity for students to apply their knowledge and creativity to make a difference for today’s Soldier. Teams develop perspective on how modern technology can help the U.S. military, as well as fire fighters, law enforcement officers, and other emergency response personnel. Army mentors provide SDC team members with advice on the military relevancy and technical viability of proposed technology solutions.

The success of the SDC is seen in the educational experience it provides to students and in the promising inventions created by them. Teams are encouraged to continue development of their inventions and explore the creation of startup companies. For example, a challenge submitted by the Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center called for an autonomously powered rope ascender, of maximum weight 30 lbs., to safely lift a 250-lb. person 50 feet into the air, along a standard, unknotted military rappel rope, in less than 5 seconds. A team of MIT undergraduate students competing in the 2nd Soldier Design Competition won an award for their solution to this challenge, and started a successful company to commercialize their technology. The company, ATLAS Devices, has a wide array of customers both in and out of DoD, and is a recognized leader in rapid vertical access technology, with current models of the Atlas Powered Ascender able to lift 500 lbs. 700 feet at a rate of up to 5 feet per second.

Another MIT team, led by Army officer and MIT PhD Luis Alvarez, invented a helmet mounted blast dosimeter for measuring and tracking the cumulative head impact suffered by Soldiers in the field. Aspects of this technology were briefed to GEN Dick Cody, then Army Vice Chief of Staff, who was spurred to increase focus on this growing problem and tasked further research and development to the PM Soldier Equipment under PEO-Soldier.

In SDC8, a team of USMA cadets took the top prize for a simple, rapidly deployable modified HESCO Bastion that greatly reduces the time and effort necessary for the initial deployment of protective barriers. The modified barrier was tested by the US Army Corps of Engineers at the Joint Readiness Training Center at Fort Polk. The data from that testing is being used by HESCO in the design of the next generation of protective barriers.