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Electro-Optic Fabric Concepts for Combat Clothing

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    wow. ... By Curt Biberdorf Special to the American Forces Press Service NATICK, Mass., April 8, 2002 -- Using a finger of his glove, a soldier determines if
    Message 1 of 1 , Apr 8, 2002
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      By Curt Biberdorf
      Special to the American Forces Press Service

      NATICK, Mass., April 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.)


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