Military uniforms with programmable fiber could store, transmit data

The U.S. Army is developing a programmable fiber that could record, store, and transmit data from military uniforms. Developed in collaboration with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), the fiber with digital capabilities can sense, store, analyze and infer activity when sewn into a piece of clothing.

Researchers at MIT’s Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies developed the new fiber by placing hundreds of square silicon microscale digital chips into a preform that created a polymer fiber. By precisely controlling the polymer flow, the team created a fiber with a continuous electrical connection between the chips over a length of tens of meters. This fiber is thin and flexible and can pass through a needle, be sewn into fabrics, and washed at least ten times without breaking down.

The digital fiber can also store a lot of information in memory. The researchers were able to write, store, and read the information on the fiber, including a 767-kilobit full-color short movie file and a 0.48-megabyte music file. These files can be stored in the fiber memory for up to two months without the need for power. The fiber also contains a smart neural network, which collects data from the body of the person wearing the garment.

In addition, the fiber can power artificial intelligence applications, including, within the fiber memory, a neural network of 1,650 connections. Researchers sewed it around the armpit of a shirt, collected surface body temperature data from a person wearing the shirt, and analyzed how the data corresponded to different physical activities. The fiber was able to determine with 96% accuracy the activity in which the person wearing the shirt was participating, researchers said.

Researchers believe that the programmable fibers someday could sense and alert Soldiers in real-time to health changes like a respiratory decline or an irregular heartbeat or deliver muscle activation or heart rate data during training exercises. Besides, the smart fabric could provide data on any toxins Soldiers are exposed to, the length of time they are exposed, and monitor any effects those toxins have on their physiology.

Next, the Army is planning to design a new chip as a microcontroller that can be connected within the fiber itself. “When we can do that, we can call it a fiber computer,” said Gabriel Loke, MIT doctoral student.

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