Smart fabrics for 21st century soldiers

Posted on 12 Mar 2015 by Jonny Williamson

The chance meeting of a weaver and an electronic designer has produced complex woven electronics, a flexible circuit board that could revolutionise how soldiers are kitted out.

How do you go from designing a voice-communication aid for people with disabilities to producing a smart fabric for the military? Evidently, a healthy dose of serendipity would appear to be the secret.

Dr Stan Swallow and Asha Thompson, founders & directors, Intelligent Textiles.
Dr Stan Swallow and Asha Thompson, founders & directors, Intelligent Textiles.

Asha Thompson and Dr Stan Swallow met while working at the Design for Life Centre at Brunel University London. The pair were attempting to achieve a body-worn, voice communication aid which could be integrated into an item of clothing.

Their endeavours resulted in the creation of a passive electronic circuit woven into a single piece of fabric, a realisation that came with a whole host of potential applications.

However after several unsuccessful attempts by Brunel to commercialise the technology, Thompson and Swallow bought the patents and span-out an independent company, Intelligent Textiles Ltd.

“Having something that could enter almost any market or sector actually made the situation much more challenging for us, being such a small company,” admits Thompson.

“Our initial funding came from Australia Wool Innovation, which wanted to explore new technologies or markets for wool; but we were also working with a Lancashire weaving mill, Mitchell Interflex Ltd, involved with the John Lewis Partnership, whose sister company printed camouflage patterns for the Canadian military.”

Soldier with the 2nd Battalion, The Royal Highland Fusiliers in Afghanistan wearing full combat dress.
Full combat kit carried by a UK solider (image courtesy of MoD).

It was the Canadian military’s desire to find technical textiles able to serve military applications that led to Intelligent Textiles being exhibited overseas and generating considerable praise.

“Our technology was exactly what they needed to solve a soldier’s problems,” Thompson explains. “Among other things, a modern soldier’s kit includes a variety of radios, vision equipment and computer devices; all of which require separate battery packs.

“By connecting the various pieces of equipment to a single flexible circuit board, the number of batteries is reduced to one single power source, significantly decreasing the amount of weight to be shouldered.”

Additionally, conventional cabling is likely to snag and/or break; something which could prove catastrophic in a combat situation. The single circuit board negates the need for trailing cables and removes any potential pressures sores they may cause.

According to Thompson, the smart fabric can be woven on standard looms. Swallow provides her with an electronic schematic, which Thompson then translates into warp and weft. A conductive yarn weaved into a matrix allows power, data, switching, antennae, any electrical architecture to be put wherever it’s needed to on that fabric.

Intelligent Textiles Drawing
The single circuit board negates the need for trailing cables liable to snag, as well as removing any potential pressures sores they may cause.

All of the prototypes are currently being handmade by Thompson in her studio, with the resulting information they provide passed on to Mitchell Interflex’s automated weavers.

Part of Intelligent Textiles’ involvement with the Canadian military was that it was asked to present at NATO where it was discovered this innovative, potentially life-saving British technology had so far been funded out of Canada.

Enter Centre for Defence Enterprise (CDE), Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (DSTL) and Innovate UK, whose additional funding permitting the company to de-risk its technology for military applications, allowing it to be really taken seriously.

Fast forward to today and the company has not only worked with BAE Systems in the UK to create the Broadsword product family, but has garnered interest from both the US Army and US Marine Corp across the pond.

All of the prototypes are currently being handmade by Thompson on standard weaving looms.
All of the prototypes are currently being handmade by Thompson on standard weaving looms.

“I think it’s one of the first times that the US Marine Corp and the US Army have worked together on a project,” says Thompson. “Their four-month, full-user trials have just started and it will be an evaluation of the system integrated into their existing vests, including the battery and the skeleton network – or “Spirit Network” as we call it, which is the fabric distribution.

“They also have integrated their Nett Warrior electronics system into it, and sent it into the field with soldiers to see how it effects and aids their ability to do their jobs.”

In terms of the UK military adopting the technology, there’s currently a bi-lateral agreement between the UK Ministry of Defence and the US Department of Defense which hopefully should expedite the development of innovative technologies such as this and see them adopted by both parties far more swiftly. Intelligent Textiles’ relationship with BAE is also hoped to hasten the UK military’s adoption of the technology.

Moving the technology forward, Thompson thinks that combining it with inductive charging would be of significant benefit. By placing an inductive coil in both the back of the vest and in the seat of a vehicle, when the soldier sits down, the whole Spirit System begins charging. A similar technique, though on a smaller scale, is being explored for personal radios

Intelligent Textiles - Fabric Keyboard
Alongside inductive charging, fabric keyboards could be one way of moving the technology forward.

“The reason I believe we’ve got so much traction with our technology isn’t necessarily that it’s made of fabric, but because its lightweight and all of the benefits that provides in terms of durability, flexibility, etc.,” reflects Thompson.

“It’s a solider system that has no restrictions. It doesn’t matter where you put the visible connector on the surface of the fabric because there are no cable runs to impede. The beauty of our technology is the fact that it’s offering all of these benefits, but it’s invisible.

“That’s the future of wearables, it’s not about watches or telephones, its embedding technology into clothing so that we don’t even realise it’s there.”