Functional microfibers let this smart fabric sense heat, light, and sound.
In many of the futuristic games that we play, we're habituated to our character's body armor feeding us a constant stream of information about their location, health, and general situation at any given moment. Such armor also tends to let its wearer communicate by just chatting away into their shoulders, chests, or wrists, while at the same time allowing them to recieve messages in turn. They're smart, futuristic bits of kit - and in a new development, a joint MIT/US Army project focused on multifunctional microfibers might just have found a way to make such suits a reality.
The team at the Institute for Soldier Microtechnologies, led by MIT materials-science professor Yoel Fink, a former soldier in the Israeli Defense Forces, has built a US Army uniform that has tiny, supremely complex microfibers woven through its fabric as a proof-of-concept. Each microfiber is a composite of different sensor threads, including materials sensitive to light, heat, and sound. The idea is that if the soldier is wearing a uniform made of these things, the sense-enabled microfibers transcend their roles as simple threads and start working as idendify friend/foe systems, communicators, and health monitors. Soldiers wearing such a uniform could, in theory, talk into their shoulders and have the microfibers there pick up the sound; if wounded, heat and movement sensors could relay data back to the relevant personnel; in the fog of war, these smart uniforms could be identified with something as simple as quick shot from a laser. The list goes on.
By utilizing existing manufacturing techniques used for building fiberoptic wires, the team was able to build these functional microfibers using as wide as range of materials as it wanted. What Fink describes as "typically a combination of insulators, semiconductors and conductors," is "fluidized" through a process called thermal drawing, and then cut super-thin. This gives the team the flexibility to add different kinds of functions to different microfibers to serve different purposes.
"These are new kinds of fibers that are themselves devices," says John Joannopoulos, the Institute's director. Expanding on the idea to explain how a uniform like this might help a wounded soldier, Joannopoulos continues: "[If wounded] you wouldn't be talking, [the material] would transmit information: who you are, what time you went down, where the wounds are, what is the estimated severity of the wound, et cetera."
"The idea with these fibers is that eventually, we'd like to enable full-body sensing for the soldier," Joannopoulos continues.
At the moment, adds Joannopoulos, the fibers themselves are about 1 millimeter thick, which is seemingly much too big for what the team has planned. With years of research and development planned, the team is looking to reduce the size of the fibers to around 100 microns. They're upfront about the fact that their project has a long way to go: the microfibers still rely on line-of-sight, they've yet to be tested beyond a range of 75 meters (246 feet), and nobody's wholly sure on how the transmission of information will work exactly. But hey, all technology starts somewhere; by all accounts, MIT isn't a bad place to begin.
Image Credit: Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies/MIT