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Public Affairs Office title

U.S. Army Soldier & Biological Chemical Command
U.S. Army Soldier Systems Center-Natick
Public Affairs Office
Kansas Street
Natick, MA 01760-5012

Contact: Chief, Public Affairs Office
(508) 233-5340
amssb-opa@natick.army.mil

Date: January 14, 2002
No: 02-04

Active fabric

Natick, Mass. --- From the finger of a glove, a soldier determines if water is safe to drink. Unrolled from his pocket, he plugs in a keyboard to type a message. Calling for support, his radio sends and receives signals with an antenna blended into his uniform.

Through a Small Business Innovative Research (SBIR) program started in 1998 known as Electro-Optic Fabric Concepts for Combat Clothing, researchers at the U.S. Army Soldier Systems Center (Natick) are developing textiles that transport power and data. Unlike traditional textiles, these fabrics are active rather than passive.

"After looking into the state-of-the-art of materials for a variety of protective clothing applications, it became clear that there was potential to achieve a revolutionary improvement in performance if electronics and optics-related technologies could be successfully integrated into textiles," said Carole Winterhalter, a textile technologist.

Although the Battle Dress Uniform (BDU) provides camouflage and environmental protection, it may also become a wearable electronic network that transports data to and from the soldier's wearable computer.

Like a Local Area Network (LAN), soldiers would have their own Personal Area Network (PAN), which opens new opportunities for battlefield lethality and survivability. The network could perform functions such as chemical detection, identification to prevent casualties from friendly fire and monitoring of a soldier's physiological condition.

The first step in developing the PAN was also the program's first success. Natick and SBIR partner Foster-Miller Inc. in Waltham, Mass., developed a textile-based version of the Universal Serial Bus (USB) cable.

Researchers picked the USB, which is used with desktop computers, because it is a commonly used item. The normally stiff and heavy plastic-coated cable was manufactured into a thin, flexible and wearable cable with flat, low-profile connectors. It can be integrated into clothing and is currently under consideration in Product Manager-Soldier Equipment's Advanced Combat Uniform program.

"After testing and evaluation, it actually functioned like a normal USB," Winterhalter said. "The technical feasibility was proven with the USB, so now we're going to survey other military-based electronic wearable systems currently under development, map the electronic architecture, and then build textile-based cabling and wearable connectors."

The success of the wearable cable led to other applications, such as the body-worn squad-level antenna for a tactical communications radio.

A wearable, flexible and textile-based antenna was developed and integrated into the Modular Lightweight Load Carrying Equipment (MOLLE) vest. It has advantages over the standard 30-inch whip antenna in that it is body conformal and visually covert, not compromising the soldier's silhouette.

The antenna vest is a joint development effort with the U.S. Communications and Electronics Command (CECOM), and it supports their advanced antenna science and technology objective. Natick developed the textile-based antenna and led the integration efforts while CECOM developed the electronic switching devices. A performance evaluation of the vest will be conducted this spring with a follow-on safety effort in the fall.

The technology developed under the SBIR program that supports both the cabling and antenna efforts was patented and licensed to Malden Mills in Lawrence, Mass., for use in their Polartec Heat Blanket.

Knowing that power and data can be sent through textiles, the next step is to determine how and where to place the sensors that will transmit information to the soldier's computer. Winterhalter said sensors could be attached or embedded into the material or be the fabric itself, and could be located on the inside, middle or outside layer of the clothing system. "Integration of both the electronic network and sensors also presents new design issues and human factors issues of safety, comfort, performance and durability," she said.

Technology applied to heated blanket

A ribbon-like power bus folded under the fabric binding at each end was the component that enabled Malden Mills in Lawrence, Mass., to manufacture the unique Polartec Heat Blanket.

The power bus, developed at the U.S. Army Soldier Systems Center (Natick), is connected to the heating elements, which are superfine conductive fibers knit right into the fleece material.

It's a successful example of military research in electro-textiles that's been applied to the commercial market.

"We were amazed and pleased with how quickly the technology was transferred and used in this very popular blanket," said Carole Winterhalter, a textile technologist at Natick.

She said Malden Mills was interested in making an improved electric blanket that did not have the stiff and bulky wires that are associated with traditional electric blankets.

Without the thick wires, the new heat blanket is lighter, more flexible, and can be machine-washed and dried.

When plugged into an electrical outlet, the blanket is evenly warmed with a low-voltage current that uses the same amount of power as a 100-watt light bulb. The blanket uses an illuminated round, wireless controller with dual temperature adjustment and is sold exclusively through Lands' End Home catalog.

Natick is part of the U.S. Army Soldier and Biological Chemical Command (SBCCOM). For more information about SBCCOM or the Soldier Systems Center (Natick), please visit our website at http://www.sbccom.army.mil.

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This page last updated on 14 January 2002


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