Smart textiles drive developments in many of the applications most desired by the military.
The military continues to be one of the markets most interested in adopting smart textile technologies. In fact, military applications represented 21 percent of the smart fabric market in 2013. This year, the U. S. Army Natick Soldier RD&E Center (Natick) provided a fairly specific “wish list” to the industry, including smart textile performance capabilities and applications, during its Textile Science & Technology Industry Day.
Because aerial delivery systems are developed and constructed using significant amounts of textiles, there is interest in incorporating smart fabrics into these systems to enhance their performance, as well as soldier capabilities, in the future. Products include parachute systems and helicopter sling load components for transporting equipment.
Although these products may sound routine in terms of military use, the possibilities for smart technology enhancement are anything but routine. Opportunities spelled out by Natick fall under these tasks and capabilities: actuation, component health monitoring, data and power monitoring, power generation, repurposing, sensing, and signature reduction, which could also be labeled invisibility technologies.
Actuation may include altering properties of textiles to allow for active control of an airdrop system, including the parachute canopy and helicopter slings. Components could be developed to monitor the textiles’ condition in ways that a visual inspection may not detect.
The ability to transmit power and data could be accomplished with conductors woven into fabrics; incorporated into braided textiles via conductive fibers, yarns or coatings; or with interconnections between fabrics and braided textiles. In fact, smart fabrics could generate power using photovoltaic, energy harvesting by nano-wind turbines dispersed throughout the fabric or harnessing static electricity.
Ideally, smart fabrics used in deployment of these systems could also be repurposed once on the ground for shelters, antenna arrays and energy generation. Textiles with embedded sensors could enhance systems’ performance by providing monitoring and feedback. Finally, smart textiles could offer acoustic, visual, radar and thermal signature reduction. In brief, a smart textile could provide enhancements for a single product that covers multiple capabilities.
Currently, the military has multiple research partnerships working on solutions that address these and other objectives. Nanotechnology could impact a variety of innovative technologies and end uses, including creating optical negative-index metamaterials (NIM) that can make objects invisible. Using this technology with synthetic textiles can cause light to bend around an object, making it invisible to some wavelengths. Just this spring, researchers at the University of Central Florida (UCF) perfected a nanotransfer printing technique that made possible increasing the size of multilayer 3-D metamaterials, which could be stitched together to create a much larger area of coverage.
Although invisibility cloaking on a large scale is well into the future, fundamental technologies are in place to accomplish that someday. The use of a light-bending nanotechnology fabric for a product called Quantum Stealth camouflage has already been tested by the U.S. Marines for protection against snipers.
In the future, smart fabrics could be integral in basic military needs, such as tents, protective gear and clothing. For example, the Army eventually wants tents to have electricity and lighting built into the tent fabric. Advances in photovoltaic technology could allow for lightweight solar cells to be woven into plastics and textiles, which would reduce the need for hauling generators and large quantities of fuel.
Lighter and better protection
The demand for protective products overall has been decreasing, but the opportunities for smart fabrics and products using smart materials are on the rise.
Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) hopes to create the soldier of the future using high-tech mechanical developments and advanced medical technologies. DARPA is developing an exoskeleton that will allow soldiers to run faster and lift heavier objects, and it will be equipped with biosensors and climate control.
One of the the Army’s research projects is a Tactical Assault Light Operator Suit (TALOS) in development with MIT that will use liquid armor that can change from liquid to solid in milliseconds. TALOS will be supplied with oxygen and heat, sensors that monitor body temperature and heart rate, repel dangerous chemical and biological agents, and have complex computer systems that anticipate soldier’s strategies and monitor the soldier’s surrounding environment.
Researchers at defense and security products supplier BAE Systems have demonstrated a system featuring antennas woven into soldier uniforms. Body wearable antennas reduce the load soldiers must carry and provide more options for the use of technology, such as video cameras, GPS and communications systems. Also in the interests of improving power supplies that a soldier must carry, Ball Aerospace is researching lightweight fuel cells that could power a soldier’s night vision, goggles, GPS, two-way radio and flashlight.
The goal is to equip soldiers with all useful technology available, but keep the soldier’s load as lightweight and easily deployable as possible.