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Defense Dept. turns to Apple, Lockheed Martin for wearable tech

The US government is teaming up with the private sector and academia to make sure the country keeps up with the rapidly advancing wearable tech market.

A group of 162 companies, universities and other groups, including Boeing, Apple and Harvard, will help the US military advance wearable technologies.

Dave Cheng/CNET

The US Department of Defense is partnering with Apple, Lockheed Martin and 160 other private institutions to create wearable tech -- in a deal that will give the niche a $171 million boost in both the consumer and military economies.

It's all part of the Pentagon's newly announced Flexible Hybrid Electronics Manufacturing Innovation Hub -- an initiative by the Obama administration to create high-tech sensory gear flexible enough to be worn by people or molded onto the outside of a jet.

"I've been pushing the Pentagon to think outside our five-sided box and invest in innovation here in Silicon Valley and in tech communities across the country," Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said in a statement Friday.

The cooperation reflects how some of the biggest corporations and governments see wearables as a next major technology frontier. As companies like Apple, Samsung and Sony are racing into the wearables market, which includes smartwatches, fitness bands, smart glasses and clothing, the new partnership with the Pentagon is a way for the government to get involved in this growing industry. The Pentagon sees these emerging products as having benefits for better medical health monitoring and global connectivity for both consumers and the military.

"The emerging flexible hybrid electronics sector promises to revolutionize the electronics industry, and the Silicon Valley-based FlexTech Alliance consortium, backed by companies as diverse as Apple and [defense contractor] Lockheed Martin and major research universities including Stanford and MIT, represents the next chapter in the long-standing public-private partnerships between the Pentagon and tech community," the Department of Defense said in a statement.

Total shipments of wearable products are expected to jump to 126 million items in 2019, up from about 20 million last year, mostly due to increased demand for smartwatches and fitness bands, according to IDC's forecasts.

The FlexTech team includes more than 160 companies, nonprofits, independent research organizations and universities.

Under the agreement managed by the US Air Force Research laboratory, the team will receive $75 million in Defense Department funding over five years matched with more than $90 million from industry, academia and local governments. In total, the institute will receive $171 million to invest in strengthening US manufacturing, according to the Defense Department statement.

The new partnership aims to advance the use of printing technologies to create stretchable electronics. Those electronics could be embedded with sensors and worn by soldiers. In the end, it could be used on ships or warplanes for real-time monitoring of their structural integrity.

Carter will deliver a talk about the partnership between the Pentagon, academia and the private sector in Mountain View, California, starting at 11 a.m. PT.

High-tech fabric has gained prominence not only in the US but around the world. Intelligent Textiles, a British firm, combines electronics engineering, product designer and knitting. The firm weaves electronics into fabric -- not embedding electronics, but weaving them into the product itself. One area where high-tech fabric has seen frontline action is in the Canadian military's IAV Stryker armored personnel carrier.