Earlier this year, Belfast-based engineering graduate Peter Gilleece set up Vikela Armour to develop a new type of body armour that provides better protection and is a lot more comfortable to wear than conventional flak jackets.
“As of May 2020, there have been 3,502 deaths in Afghanistan as part of ongoing coalition operations. In 2010, improvised explosive device [IED] attacks in Afghanistan wounded 3,366 US soldiers and Help for Heroes say that about 15,000 UK soldiers may have suffered physical injuries in these wars. Most of the injuries and deaths were due to shrapnel coming from IEDs. Shrapnel is the most difficult projectile to protect against as it moves faster than a bullet and does not deform on impact. It can tear through body armour causing devastating injuries, PTSD and death,” says Gilleece, who points out that most injuries are down to two things: poor protection coverage and old technology.
“Existing body armour leaves the head, arms and legs completely exposed and is built on an outdated concept,” he says. “This isn’t just a problem experienced by the military. It’s also faced by landmine clearance charities and other companies working in dangerous environments.
“Existing body armour uses ceramic plates to protect against body piercing rounds, but they increase the weight of the vest, reduce flexibility of movement and limit the area of protection to the size of the plate used. My aim with Vikela was to make a suit that covers the whole body, but in a lightweight material that reduces the physical stress on the wearer without compromising the protection. Exhaustion is a real issue for soldiers who regularly carry about 54kg of equipment in very hot climates,” Gilleece says.
At age 17 Gilleece rebuilt a clapped-out Mini from scratch and a year later was driving it to school in Belfast.
“The two key considerations I wanted to address were weight and comfort and more or better protection so I began experimenting with various types of fibres and combinations of fibres and looking at different manufacturing methods,” he adds.
“The Vikela armour is made from multiple materials including Kevlar and carbon fibre. These materials are turned into fibre and structured in a new way to ensure that they’re always fully tensioned to make the most of the maximum strength of each component.”
Gilleece has always been interested in engineering. At age 17 he rebuilt a clapped-out Mini from scratch and a year later was driving it to school in Belfast. Then it was a dream come true when his college placement landed him a job with the prestige car maker Aston Martin.
“I was in the new model launch department and I really enjoyed the project management side of the experience in particular. It also gave me the chance to see how a business operates in areas I hadn’t had much experience of such as marketing,” says Gilleece who is now applying the lessons learned to his own business.
Gilleece has received support for Vikela from Queen’s Students’ Union which provides funding and free mentorship and advice to students with fledgling business ideas. He has also had a tech start grant from Invest NI.
Vikela is a very early stage company so to date it’s been driven by sweat equity and about €15,000 in hard cash. The Covid-19 lockdown has slowed the development of the company’s prototypes but Gilleece expects to have his first samples ready for testing early in the new year and is now looking at potential manufacturers for the protective body suit.