Electrified BDUs Definitely Aren't Your Father's Fatigues
By Curt Biberdorf
Special to American Forces Press Service
NATICK, Mass., Apr. 8, 2002 Using a finger of his glove, a soldier determines if water is safe to drink. He takes a rolled- up cloth keyboard from his pocket, plugs it in and starts typing a message. Calling for support, his radio sends and receives signals using an antenna blended into his uniform.
Through a 1998 Small Business Innovative Research program known as Electro-Optic Fabric Concepts for Combat Clothing, researchers at the Army Soldier Systems Center here are developing textiles that can transport power and data safely and efficiently.
"After looking into state-of-the-art 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 textile technologist Carole Winterhalter.
Although the battle dress uniform provides camouflage and environmental protection, it may also become a wearable electronic network that transports data to and from a soldier's wearable computer.
Like a local area network, soldiers' personal area network would open new opportunities for battlefield lethality and survivability. The network could be made to detect chemicals, prevent friendly fire casualties by providing positive identification, and monitor a soldier's physiological condition.
The first step in developing the PAN was also the program's first success. Natick and small business partner Foster-Miller Inc. of Waltham, Mass., developed a textile-based version of a universal serial bus cable.
Researchers picked the USB because it is a commonly used item, for instance, in desktop and laptop computers. The relatively stiff and heavy USB cable -- often the size of a computer mouse cord -- 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 an advanced combat uniform program.
"After testing and evaluation, it actually functioned like a normal USB," Winterhalter said. Learning 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. She 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.
"The technical feasibility was proven , so now we're going to survey other military-based electronic, wearable systems currently under development, map the electronic architecture," she said. "Integration of both the electronic network and sensors also presents new design issues and human factors issues of safety, comfort, performance and durability."
The success of the wearable cable led to other applications, such as a wearable, flexible and textile-based squad-level antenna for a tactical communications radio. The antenna was integrated into the Modular Lightweight Load-carrying Equipment vest. Its advantages over standard 30-inch-long whip antennas are they conform to wearers' bodies and don't compromise their silhouettes.
The antenna vest is a joint development effort with the U.S. Communications and Electronics Command, and it supports their advanced antenna science and technology objective. Natick developed the 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. The company wanted to make an unusual fleece heat blanket and succeeded by folding ribbon-like Natick power buses under the fabric bindings at each end and connecting them to heating elements made of superfine conductive fibers knit right into the fleece material.
She said Malden Mills wanted an electric blanket without the stiff, bulky wires traditionally used. The new blanket is lighter, more flexible and can be machine-washed and dried. Plugged in, it warms evenly using the same amount of power as a 100-watt light bulb.
"It's a successful example of military research in electro- textiles that's been applied to the commercial market," Winterhalter said. "We were amazed and pleased with how quickly the technology was transferred and used."
(Curt Biberdorf is the editor of "The Warrior," the bi-weekly magazine published by the Army Soldier Systems Center, Natick, Mass.)