'Fighting fuel' for military aviators
NATICK, Mass. (March 13, 2013) -- Eating on the go can be tough, especially when your job requires you to fly an aircraft for the U.S. military. The Aircrew Build to Order Meal Module, designed by the Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center's Department of Defense Combat Feeding Directorate will make refueling these aviators a lot easier.
The Combat Feeding Directorate, or CFD, has conducted two field evaluations of the prototype ABOMM in-flight meal, first with the 1st Battalion, 207th Aviation Regiment, Alaska Army National Guard, Fort Richardson, Alaska, and then with the 1st Battalion, 229th Aviation Regiment, Joint Base Lewis-McChord, at the Yakima (Wash.) Training Center.
"Natick received repeated requests from various aviators who were looking for a nutritious, lunch-type meal that can be easily consumed on-the-go, in-flight, or on the job while performing combat missions for up to five to seven hours per day," said Barbara Daley, Aircrew Build to Order Meal Module, or ABOMM, project officer.
"Feedback from surveys and focus groups indicate that aviators currently bring their own food with them or are issued Meals, Ready-to-Eat, which do not meet their specific mission needs because they are difficult to open in-flight, require utensils to eat, and can be messy, with the potential for soiling their cockpit console and electronics. As a result, aircrews were just picking and choosing a few of the snack items to take from these [Meals, Ready-to-Eat], which is a rather costly way to meet their in-flight feeding needs."
The CFD set out to design an eat-on-the-go meal for aircrews, with the potential for use with vehicle crew, tankers, stationary unmanned aerial vehicle pilots, and air defense units. It would require no preparation -- heating or re-hydration -- or utensils, is nutritious, generates minimal waste, and is more cost effective.
This tall order involves a simple solution: re-packaging. The ABOMM will be comprised of food components already being procured for other ration systems like the Meals, Ready-to-Eat, known as an MRE, and First Strike Ration, which means no new product development, shelf-life studies, or nutritional analyses are needed.
"This project has minimal (research and development) associated with it," Daley said. "We are simply trying to find the right combination of existing eat-on-the-go lunch-type items that will appeal to aircrews, and the right way to package them for use during their typical missions."
During the Fort Richardson field test, conducted in November 2012, four pre-bundled ABOMM in-flight test meals (packaged either in a zip-top bag or shrink-wrapped package), along with two Grab-N-Go meals, were evaluated. The Grab-N-Go meals consisted of shipping cases where a variety of food items were packed loosely to give study participants the ability to make their own choices as to which food items they would carry with them.
A group of 20 to 50 aviators consumed either one pre-bundled ABOMM in-flight meal or one Grab-N-Go meal per day during the seven-day testing period. Aviators filled out acceptance questionnaires each day.
"We were trying to identify the best packaging configuration," Daley said. "The Grab-N-Go concept was developed to see if aircrews were interested in having cases of different meal components available to them on the flight deck, so they could open, pick from, and place their selections into a zip-top bag."
Offering the Grab-N-Go option helped reinforce for the CFD why field testing with customers is so important. While the aircrews liked the idea of bundling their own to-go meal with four to five different components, "they realized it wouldn't work out well in combat due to the potential for early depletion of the more popular items," Daley said. Data on the pre-bundled meals also showed that the zip-top bag was preferred over the shrink-wrapped bag, as it is easier to open, resealable and reusable.
In January 2013, for a seven-day testing period, the second field test was conducted in Yakima with a group of approximately eight to 10 aviators per day. Four varieties of pre-bundled ABOMMs, comprised of easy-to-eat, shelf-stable sandwiches and snack-type items packaged into a zip-top bag, were evaluated.
"Each prototype meal evaluated provided approximately 960 calories and weighed approximately 0.83 pounds (377 grams)," Daley said.
Aviators again filled out daily acceptance questionnaires after eating the test meals. This test data is currently being analyzed by the CFD as well as supporting researchers from Natick's Consumer Research Team.
"We received a lot of positive feedback on the compactness of these meals, with users stating that it's ideal for use in small cockpits and also fits well in their map cases," Daley said.
Essential characteristics for the final ABOMM design will consider ease-of-use, acceptability, nutrition, weight, cube, packaging, packaging waste, eat-out-of-hand convenience, overall utility, unit cost and final case configuration and assembly.
Later in 2013, when all user test data is consolidated and analyzed, results and final recommendations will be presented to the Joint Services for a formal fielding decision. If approved, the CFD will develop and transition ABOMM specifications and other documentation to the Defense Logistics Agency Troop Support to aid in their procurement of the ABOMM.