Electronics, optics integrated into clothing shows initial success
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. (See related story.)
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.