Could Soldier Uniforms Detect Injuries, UAVs or Incoming Fire And Share That Data? The Army Is Looking Into It

Could Soldier Uniforms Detect Injuries, UAVs or Incoming Fire And Share That Data? The Army Is Looking Into It

U.S. Army soldiers from the 10th Mountain and the 101st Airborne units disembark from a Chinook ... [+] helicopter as they return to Bagram airbase from the fighting in eastern Afghanistan. (Photo by Joe Raedle)

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The idea of making every soldier a sensor/information node has appealed to the U.S. Army for years. It partly explains why the modern American soldier is loaded down with 90 to 140 pounds of gear including armor, electronics and batteries. But if some sensors and data communication gear could be miniaturized - down to the threads in a uniform - that burden could be reduced.

Researchers at the Army’s Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) are developing the first fiber with digital capabilities. They call it a “programmable fiber”, a notable distinction says Gabriel Loke, an MIT doctoral student, and nanotechnology researcher with the project.

“It [the fiber] is hardware but it’s actually the software [that can be run on it] that really matters.”

Software, or more literally algorithms, that can be run via small microchips embedded within the fiber can potentially sense, store, analyze and infer activity when sewn into a piece of clothing. Individuals wearing garments with digital fibers could be alerted to vital information about their physiology and environmental exposures, and share health/injury and location data with support forces.

The Army Research Laboratory-sponsored research was recently published in the journal, Nature Communications. In a nutshell, researchers placed hundreds of square silicon microscale digital chips into a preform that created a polymer fiber. By controlling the polymer flow, they created a fiber with continuous electrical connection between the chips over a length of tens of meters.

Could Soldier Uniforms Detect Injuries, UAVs or Incoming Fire And Share That Data? The Army Is Looking Into It

An MIT research team put hundreds of square silicon microscale digital chips into a preform that ... [+] created a polymer fiber which can be woven into clothing.

CCDC Army Research Laboratory

According to Loke, each micro-chip has memory capacity and can perform an application, like reading the temperature of a spot on the body. The programmable digital fibers typically have 2 to 3 micro-chips in a 12 cm strand. With each micro-chip capable of storing 1 megabit of information (even video), a single digital fiber across a (1 meter) pant-leg could potentially store 30 megabits of data. Given a strand thickness of about 0.6 mm, many strands woven around a legging could add up to gigabits of memory.

Currently, the fiber is controlled by a small external device. The next step will be to design a new chip as a microcontroller that can be connected within the fiber itself, a stop on the way to a working “fabric computer” Loke says.

Traditional garment fibers naturally twist and and bend, characteristics which digital fibers must have as well. MIT’s testing has demonstrated the polymer fiber’s ability to survive a 3 mm radius of curvature and some twisting/torque though Loke says further testing is necessary.

Could Soldier Uniforms Detect Injuries, UAVs or Incoming Fire And Share That Data? The Army Is Looking Into It

To function within a garment, digital fibers have to be able to twist and bend. They can apparently ... [+] do so well enough that a wearer wouldn't even know programmable fibers were part of a sleeve.

CCDC Army Research Laboratory

It’s also moisture resistant. The team actually put fibers through ten cycles in a washing machine and they survived well enough to indicate being able to endure many more cycles. Temperature tolerance appears to be good as well with Loke reporting unimpaired function at temperatures up 50 degrees Celsius (122 Fahrenheit). While this bodes well for functionality, the MIT team has also done fitment and comfort testing of digital fiber garments. So far, they mimic natural fibers.

“When you put the fiber into a shirt, you can’t feel it at all,” says Loke. “You wouldn’t know it was there.”

Digital fiber garments would need some power source to record and potentially transmit data. For now, the researchers are using a small coin cell type battery like the kind you’d find in a digital camera or other device. The team is working on incorporating battery/energy storage directly into the fibers as well.

A type of super capacitor fiber now being researched could potentially sustain energy supply for 3-4 hours Loke says however the idea is still very much in the R&D stage. Nonetheless, he adds, “I can foresee a future where we move to a fiber form-factor battery.”

Future digital garment combat applications that go beyond recording individual health biometrics to sharing alternative sensor information are something the MIT group has considered.

“We could collect data around the soldier,” Loke explains. “For example if there’s a drone near [a soldier] we want to be able to infer in what direction the drone is. Or if there’s a gunshot, we want to know where it is. This is where I think our digital fabric could come into play.”

“We’re working on other sensors, sensors that are able to collect sound, detect chemicals and explosives.”

Given the right sensors and application algorithms, uniforms with digital fabric might possibly help to map hazards and threats based on sensor input from multiple soldiers’ garments.

Could Soldier Uniforms Detect Injuries, UAVs or Incoming Fire And Share That Data? The Army Is Looking Into It

The possible applications for sensor-enabled connected military uniforms are easy to imagine. But so ... [+] are the practical limitations they might face.

CCDC Army Research Laboratory

But they’d have some hurdles to overcome. There are operational and data security questions. Would interactive battlefield garments be susceptible to radio frequency (RF) or thermal detection, giving away soldiers’ positions? Would they be vulnerable to jamming and cyber exploits? Could they function effectively with other body-worn devices in a dense RF environment?

“That’s a tricky question,” Loke admits.

At this point the research is basic. The MIT team acknowledges that the pursuit of sufficient memory capability in digital fiber is important for security reasons as well as individual privacy. Until research and development have progressed much further, connectivity will take a back seat to sequestering data.

“Data is not shared with the cloud,” Loke stresses. “It’s not shared with a common database. It belongs to the individual.”

That will likely be key to satisfying military demands and gaining acceptance among soldiers or other service members. The same would theoretically hold true in crossing-over digital fiber tech to the commercial market.

The basic temperature sensing and vibration sensing capabilities that the Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies has thus far tested in digital fibers could potentially be useful embedded into fabrics for medical bandages or compresses. Embedding them into composite materials suggests a range of possibilities including use in satellites.

Loke cites potential use of vibration/temperature sensor-enabled fibers in spacecraft with a view to detecting and measuring the impact of micro-asteroids. The basic idea of incorporating software into fiber could go in many directions, possibly even joining the investigation of plants and other organic life as sensor/information nodes.

“I think that really opens up a new dimension,” Loke says.