Soldiers have always worn technology to keep them from harm and help them do their jobs better. In the information age, the technology they wear is built on information itself.
In contrast with 20th-century technology that reached its peak with highly destructive atomic weapons, in the information age the key military technology will be technology of information that suits diffuse wars that lack the intensity of large-scale nation-on-nation wars of the past. This centrality of information for military success is nothing new. Clever and complete intelligence features prominently in successful military actions throughout history. However, the mass aggregation and effective processing of sensor data projected to happen in the civilian world will be mirrored in military applications to make precision, decision making, and safety better than ever. Fortunately for civilization, military technology is going the way of the scalpel and not the chainsaw.
Much of the military wearable technology in development involves the sensor network known as the Internet of Things – collecting massive and diverse data and processing it to help make decisions quickly and effectively. For soldiers, this means figuring out how to include lightweight, reliable sensors, computers, and feedback technology like head-up displays as well as compact networking into field-ready gear.
Sensors can be included in gear to monitor external factors like GPS coordinates of the soldier and his comrades and enemies. Sensors like compact laser and radar can be used to monitor the immediate environment, augmenting a soldier’s natural senses to foresee danger. Most importantly perhaps, when these sensors are networked together in a concept known as “Every Soldier a Sensor,” leaders are afforded a wealth of real-time information, allowing them to make better decisions, faster. With inclusion of head-up displays (including devices that are like a battlefield version of Google Glass), information from the sensor network can be fed back to individual soldiers, further increasing the amount of accurate information and communication each individual has at his disposal.
Worn sensors can do much more than monitor the outside environment, however. Biomonitoring sensors can collect a similar wealth of information about a soldier’s health and performance that can also be shared across networks to give leaders and individual soldiers better foundations for decision making.
One such wearable is being developed by PARC and UC San Diego under the leadership of US Department of Defense-sponsored NextFlex – a low-energy Bluetooth-enabled mouthguard that will monitor lactate, a key indicator of fatigue. According to NextFlex, “Mouth guards are an ideal format for . . . performance monitoring, as they are standard athletic equipment required in US Army training activities and offer real-time access to saliva biomarkers.”
This identification of equipment that is already standard in military applications is important. Much of the research being done in the area of military wearables involves creating a foundation upon which this array of inward- and outward-looking sensors will work, on both a soldier level and an inter-soldier level.
The Backbone of Wearable Sensors
Military wearables will be linked together by networking that must integrate smoothly with a soldier’s gear and environment without the need for constant recharging of batteries or other disruption to activities. This will be achieved through approaches such as the Body Area Network, which is designed to network all the hardware worn by an individual. Such networks will rely on technologies including smart textiles, flexible hybrid electronics, power generation, and electro-textiles.
Many of these technologies are currently under development at the US Army’s Natick Soldier RD&E Center (NSRDEC) in Massachusetts. Current NSRDEC projects include creating woven photovoltaics to be incorporated in flexible, electricity-producing tapes. These photovoltaics are also being experimented with to alter the perception of the color of light reflected by them, paving the way for enormously flexible camouflage.
Connectors for wearables in smart and electronic textiles are among the most innovative in the industry, involving a complete rethinking of what constitutes connectors and wiring. In an article in the journal Sensors, researchers Matteo Stoppa and Alessandro Chiolerio of the Italian Institute of Technology identify electronic textiles as “featuring electronics and interconnections woven into them, presenting physical flexibility and typical size that cannot be achieved with other existing electronic manufacturing techniques. Components and interconnections are intrinsic to the fabric and thus are less visible and not susceptible to becoming tangled or snagged by surrounding objects.” Clearly these features are central to military concerns of flexibility, ergonomics, power consumption, and integration into rugged gear.
What smart textiles are doing for connecting sensors on a soldier’s body together, technologies such as flexible hybrid electronics (FHEs) are doing for sensors. FHEs involve advanced printed circuitry for sensors that’s designed to stretch and flex with movement. According to the White House in a statement about the Department of Defense’s investment in these technologies through partnerships with organizations like FlexTech, “Integrating ultra-thin silicon components – through high-precision handling, printing with conductive and active inks, and pasting on stretchable substrates – flexible hybrid technologies can revolutionize how we wear and monitor our own physiology information to optimize health and lifestyles, while improving the connectivity of devices through the Internet of Things.” In spite of the White House’s mention of “health and lifestyles,” the DoD’s interest and sponsorship of technology like FHE makes it quite clear that military applications are a primary driver of research.
Beyond direct innovation in digital technology and electronics, developments in other areas of military technology are shaping the direction of military wearables. For example, the NSRDEC has identified non-woven fabrics as having potentially superior properties to traditional woven textiles for many military applications, and technologies like woven photovoltaics must be able to keep up with these evolving materials standards.
In addition, the practical effects of new equipment and technologies on soldiers’ performance must be well understood. This is a task already being undertaken by the NSRDEC, at the Center for Military Biomechanics Research, which is currently researching how technology like new extremity body armor and exoskeletons (think the Iron Man suit) impact a soldier’s performance.
As is the case with projects like the Iron Man suit, public-private partnership is proving crucial to development of military wearable technologies. NextFlex was created by a cooperative agreement between FlexTech Alliance, a consortium composed of private and public institutions, and the US Department of Defense. According to the White House, this project brings together “major electronics and semiconductor companies like Applied Materials, Apple, United Technologies, Hewlett Packard, and Qualcomm with end users like Boeing, General Motors, the Cleveland Clinic, Corning, and Motorola that can embed flexible, bendable electronics into everything from medical devices to supersonic jets while also building on the cutting-edge research underway at partner universities such as Stanford, UC Berkeley, Harvard, and MIT.”
Connector companies are already serving military wearables well. Projects like TE Connectivity’s Wearables Lab have been initiated to provide organizations, including the military, custom support for creating smaller, more rugged components that are helping to make these technologies a reality.
Neil Shurtz is a contributor to ConnectorSupplier.com based in San Francisco. As a freelancer and in his work in public relations for high-tech companies, he has written about technology in the oil and gas, aerospace, and manufacturing industries. Shurtz specializes in framing complex and niche technical topics in a broader social context.