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Military Snags Fibers to Make Multipurpose Smart Clothes

Wearable technologies move from an armband to a shirt to a full uniform. Embedded programmable fibers can track a person’s physiological conditions and send alerts if the person is in need of medical attention.

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Image credit: MIT

Many wearable technologies have become mainstream, so we no longer wonder why someone might be talking to their wrist. Wearables like the Fitbit promote healthy living by tracking steps and reminding people to move around. Hospitals use wearable smart thermometers to track temperatures without disturbing patients (see related IoT Solution Integrator article, “Wireless Temperature Monitoring Patch Aids in COVID-19 Care”). 

Now, researchers are exploring ways to turn fabrics into wearable technology, fusing the physical and digital worlds as we don our clothing.

 

One example is from Levi’s, which teamed with Google to develop a tech-enabled denim jacket that connects to a smart phone via a Bluetooth tag. The wearer is able to trigger actions using a fabric-based touch pad on the jacket cuff. It is expensive and has limited availability, but the idea of technology-infused clothing remains.

MIT-designed smart fibers woven into fabric.

Image credit: MIT

A Digital Fabric Blend

Researchers at the Army Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology are working to develop clothing that can protect and aid soldiers in the field. The team has created a “fiber computer” that can be woven into fabric. The fiber can detect, collect, and share information about the wearer’s physiological and environmental conditions and identify their location.

The fibers can sense, store, and analyze data extracted from sensors on the skin to determine the wearer’s activities. During testing, researchers sewed the fiber into the armpit of a shirt and collected more than four hours of surface body temperature data from the test subject. After analyzing the results, they found the fiber was able to determine the person’s activity with 96 percent accuracy.

A soldier wearing a uniform with this technology could be monitored in real time. If woven into fabric, the fiber would be in contact with most of the body, giving it ample touchpoints from which to gather data. It can sense illness, fatigue, stress, and other physical conditions. A tech-enabled uniform could alert officers if a soldier is experiencing respiratory distress, has an irregular heartbeat, or becomes injured. It can monitor people during training exercises without requiring special equipment or additional weight.

The programmable fiber could potentially detect and alert the wearer if they are in the presence of dangerous chemicals or pollutants. By transmitting the wearer’s location, it can alert medical personnel or warn other soldiers of dangerous conditions.

MIT-designed smart fiber woven through a needle.

Image credit: MIT

Energy Conversion

The fiber strands are pulled until they are thin enough to fit through the eye of a needle. They have embedded microchips and can withstand 10 washings before disintegrating. The researchers are still working to ensure the fibers can generate enough power to handle the processing required to collect, store, and transmit the data.

The MIT researchers might want to team up with scientists from the University of Fukui in Japan and Nanjing University in China. They are collaborating on an energy-harvesting fiber called EF-TENG that can be woven into fabric. The electrospun fiber captures the static electricity generated when a person moves, converting mechanical energy into electrical energy. Weaving that fiber into clothing theoretically could generate enough energy to power a smartphone or other electronic device.

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