A programmable fiber was developed that could transmit data from military uniforms. The fiber could generate power, provide vital information about the wearer’s physiology and environmental exposures, provide their location to a team, and alert someone if they incur an injury. Ultimately, uniforms with this technology could power sensors, store and analyze the collected data, and transmit data to outside sources.
The researchers placed hundreds of square silicon microscale digital chips into a preform that created a polymer fiber. By precisely controlling the polymer flow, they created a fiber with continuous electrical connection between the chips over a length of tens of meters.
Until now, electronic fibers have been analog, carrying a continuous electrical signal rather than digital, where discrete bits of information can be encoded and processed in 0s and 1s.
The fiber itself is thin and flexible and can pass through a needle, be sewn into fabrics, and washed at least 10 times without breaking down. The digital fiber could uncover the context of hidden patterns in the human body for physical performance monitoring, medical inference, and early disease detection.
A digital fiber can also store a lot of information in memory. The researchers were able to write, store, and read information on the fiber including a 767-kilobit full-color short movie file and a 0.48-megabyte music file. The files can be stored for two months without power.
The fiber also includes, within the fiber memory, a neural network of 1,650 connections. After sewing it around the armpit of a shirt, the researchers used the fiber to collect 270 minutes of surface body temperature data from a person wearing the shirt and analyzed how these data corresponded to different physical activities. Trained on these data, the fiber was able to determine with 96 percent accuracy the activity in which the person wearing the shirt was participating.
The fibers 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. They could also 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.
The fiber is controlled by a small external device, so the next step will be to design a new chip as a microcontroller that can be connected within the fiber itself.