Smart fabric for new soldier uniform

By Paul Rincon
Science editor, BBC News website

image captionThe advanced uniform could see use by the end of the year

British soldiers' uniforms could soon use electrically conducting yarn woven directly into the clothing, replacing cumbersome batteries and cabling.

The "e-textiles" could provide uniforms with a single, central power source.

This would allow soldiers to recharge one battery instead of many and cut the number of cables required in their kit.

Surrey-based Intelligent Textiles showcased the lightweight uniform at an event organised by theCentre for Defence Enterprise (CDE).

The company has patented a number of techniques for weaving complex conductive fabrics.

"We have built-in conductive yarns that then take power and data to where it needs to be," Asha Thompson, director of Intelligent Textiles, told BBC News.

"One of the problems with conventional cables is that breakages can be catastrophic. What we do here is build in redundancy, so that if the fabric gets cut, damaged or torn, we still have a way of re-routing the data."

The company has received £234,000 from the CDE, which wants to find solutions for reducing the physical and the "cognitive" burden placed on soldiers.

Currently, separate batteries may be required for each piece of a soldier's equipment, which adds to their carrying load as well as being costly. This is one reason why a centralised battery pack is so desirable.

In addition, it removes the hindrance of the many wires and cables required in military equipment. These can add weight and can tangle and snag.

Soldiers would also be able to recharge or replace one battery instead of many.

Field trials

"We've got the fabric integrated into the vest, into the shirt, into the helmet, the backpack, and into the glove and weapons platform," said Ms Thompson.

image captionThe new uniform could reduce the current physical burden for soldiers

"We have a ringmain that allows us to power data wherever we want it to go. We can send power up to the helmet without it being tethered."

The "plug-and-play" connectors used in the current uniform prototype are for demonstration and are unlikely to be the ones used in a finished product.

This is partly because they have not been environmentally-proofed to stop them rusting or short-circuiting, and also because they will need to work with older equipment still used by armed forces.

Also being developed is a fabric keyboard for use with a portable computer that will be integrated with the uniform.

The company is planning to carry out field trials in May and the system could see some limited use by the end of the year. But it is likely to be 2014 or 2015 before the lightweight uniforms see more widespread use.

The company is currently working with BAE Systems to integrate other next-generation equipment into the uniform.

The Centre for Defence Enterprise was set up to provide a new process for harnessing innovative ideas with potential defence or security applications. It calls for research proposals from academia and companies for ideas that are high-risk but which may also have great benefits.

The organisation is based at the Harwell science campus in Oxfordshire and is part of theDefence Science and Technology Laboratory (DSTL).

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