Thursday, April 18, 2024

U.S. intelligence agencies dream of high-tech spy pants, underwear

Intelligence Community (IC) and Department of Defense (DoD) missions often require sensor systems that can collect and communicate critical information on staff members’ location and surroundings, particularly when they are working in dangerous or high-stress environments.

However, using the sensor system can be a distraction and can reduce mission safety and effectiveness, much like using a phone while driving. Distracted work can lead to serious national security risks in IC and DoD missions.

Development of comfortably worn Active Smart Textile (AST) garments for use in such situations as on-site arms control inspections is the objective of the U.S. government’s new Smart electrically Powered And Networked Textile Systems (SMART ePANTS) program.

The SMART ePANTS cutting-edge program aims to make performance-grade, computerized clothing a reality. The project is managed by the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA) – the advanced research and development arm of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. It has received a $22 million funding to develop “smart” clothing that spies on the wearer and its surroundings.

Billed as the “largest single investment to develop Active Smart Textiles (AST),” the SMART ePANTS program aims to create a variety of clothing items, including shirts, pants, and even underwear, with sensors, cameras, and wires woven directly into garments.

One of the main challenges in the SMART ePANTS effort is ensuring that the sensor-integrated clothing items remain washable, stretchable, and bendable. Additionally, the SMART ePANTS sensor systems must be safely worn against the skin, be reusable, and be capable of exporting the data they gather to an external data storage device. The intelligence community is working to develop electronic components that are durable and can withstand the rigors of everyday wear and tear.

The ASTs developed under the SMART ePANTS program comprise four components: sensors to gather information, a computation and data storage unit, a power source, and interconnects that enable device operation. IARPA expects that these components will be distributed throughout the garment to maximize the use of the textile that most people wear to work.

IARPA says the durable, ready-to-wear clothing will feel, move, and function like any garment. It will be capable of recording audio, video, and geolocation data for use by personnel within the IC, DoD, Department of Homeland Security, and other wider intelligence communities.

In addition, this eTextile technology could assist personnel and first responders in dangerous and high-stress environments, like crime scenes and arms control inspections. It could do so without getting in their way or slowing them down, allowing them to operate swiftly and safely.

“IARPA is proud to lead this first-of-its-kind effort for both the IC and broader scientific community, which will bring much-needed innovation to the field of ASTs,” said SMART ePANTS Program Manager Dr. Dawson Cagle in the press release. “To date, no group has committed the time and resources necessary to fashion the first integrated electronics that are stretchable, bendable, comfortable, and washable like regular clothing.”

The SMART ePANTS program is anticipated to be a 42-month effort.