Computers in your clothing? Army wants to embed chips into fabric

Computers are pretty much everywhere in the 2020s, but t-shirts and pants have mostly kept themselves out of the tech world.

That could change soon, though, now that the Army is working on a programmable fabric that could transmit data from soldier’s uniforms.

The Army’s Combat Capabilities Development Command (DEVCOM) is working to embed certain chips into clothing fabric so that they can communicate information from clothing back to devices.

“This could add functionality, such as explosive sensing, sound detection, physiological state mobility and communicate this information to the soldier through a heads-up display and also to command,” Jim Burgess, a program manager at DEVCOM, told Federal News Network.

Researchers were able to write, store, and read information on the fibers, including a 767-kilobit full-color short movie file and a 0.48-megabyte music file. The files can be stored for two months without power.

Researchers at MIT, who are teaming up with the Army, are also working on how to power the chips and making sure they can handle the stresses of wear.

“One type of functionality that we’re aiming at is to generate energy from the movement itself, and store that energy,” Burgess said. “Tests are ongoing. We are also bending the fiber to make sure there’s not a failure of electrical connection between the microchips and running the fabric through a typical washing machine cycle many times and then testing the functionality of the circuit afterwards. So far, we’ve had very good results with the durability in terms of washing movement, the typical types of stresses the fibers would be under during use.”

The Army is even testing fabrics for space. One of the functionalities DEVCOM is working on is a fabric that can detect micrometeorites, and it currently being tested at the space station.

The fibers have minimal impact to the wearers.

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

DEVCOM said the fibers will also help with the development of artificial intelligence.

Within the fiber memory researchers tested a neural network of 1,650 connections. After sewing it around the armpit of a shirt, the researchers used the fiber to collect 270 minutes of surface body temperature data from a person wearing the shirt, and analyzed how these data corresponded to different physical activities. Trained on these data, the fiber was able to determine with 96% accuracy the activity in which the person wearing the shirt was participating, a release on the technology stated.

The project has a core budget of about $5 million a year and DEVCOM hopes to have the fabric in the battlefield by 2050.

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