From sports shoes to bomb shields


SKYDEX makes blast-absorbing plastic sheets that line military vehicles like the Mine Resistant Ambush Protected trucks used by American personnel in Iraq.

By Bill Briggs, NBC News contributor

In the lobby at SKYDEX Technologies, just south of Denver, there’s a stunning, inside-facing wall that approaching visitors can’t see.

Departing employees, however, can take long, slow gazes at all the imagery blanketing that wall: in short, it’s a glimpse of the immense, human cost of war.

Pictures show a U.S. Army soldier missing one full leg below his hip and a portion of his second leg under the knee – body parts abruptly shredded by an IED in Afghanistan two years ago. That soldier, still on active duty, is undergoing rehab at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md.

“We placed the photographs there, a lot of photographs,” said Peter Foley, chief technology officer at SKYDEX. (The pictured soldier prefers to remain anonymous). “You can’t help but look at those photos and not think about how not only his life has changed but his family’s lives as well. SKYDEX people see it as they leave. It will often make us turn around and go back inside and work harder.”

Foley said the company’s patented, blast-absorbing plastic sheets now line more than 18,000 military vehicles – including Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) trucks used by American personnel in Afghanistan and Iraq. Similar cushioning materials developed by SKYDEX also reinforce the floors of military interceptor boats and the padding in troop helmets.

In an IED attack that’s large enough to carry a 100 percent chance of seriously injuring a soldier who’s riding above the explosion, the odds of bad wounds drop to 10 percent if that vehicle’s flooring is covered with a SKYDEX application, according to Foley.

The core of this danger-soaking science involves thin mats filled with thermoplastic, opposing “twin hemispheres” that collapse into one another during a nearby bomb burst, sucking up the rapid, violent energy waves emitted by an IED.

When the company’s “convoy decking” is viewed from the side, however, it somewhat resembles the guts of a sports shoe.

There’s a logical reason for that bouncy, about-to-dunk look.

“We started the company thinking we were a sporting goods material,” Foley said. “That’s my background. I’m actually a biomechanist.”

Plainly put, that means he is a sports scientist trained to apply the laws of mechanics and physics to human performance.

“The early inventors (of the SKYDEX material) were early guys at Nike, pioneers in the shoe industry. This absorbs so much more shock than foam,” which has lined many athletic shoes over the years. 

But within about six months of the 2001 launch of SKYDEX Technologies, the company was approached by researchers from the Marines, the Army and the Navy – “to work on different problems the military had,” Foley said.

Among those problems: IEDs.

“Because we absorb so much force, it makes sense for them to go this route,” Foley added.