Wearables at war: How smart textiles are lightening the load for soldiers

From fabric keyboards to kit that powers up when the soldier mounts up, Intelligent Textiles is one of the companies on the front line of wearable technology.

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Richard Trenholm was CNET's film and TV editor, covering the big screen, small screen and streaming. A member of the Film Critic's Circle, he's covered technology and culture from London's tech scene to Europe's refugee camps to the Sundance film festival.
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Richard Trenholm
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Wearable technology can help soldiers who go through more batteries than bullets. Oleg Zabielin/Shutterstock

LONDON -- If you thought your Fitbit, Samsung Gear or Apple Watch was a bit fiddly, imagine using a wearable while "holding a rifle, in the dark, when you're being shot at." That's the challenge facing companies building wearables for the military in a world of high-tech modern warfare that goes through more batteries than bullets.

One company developing wearables that aim to save lives is Intelligent Textiles Ltd (ITL), a British firm started by Asha Thompson and Stan Swallow that combines electronics engineering, product designer and knitting. Yes, knitting. The firm weaves electronics into fabric -- not embedding electronics, but weaving them into the product itself.

A soldier wearing the BAE Broadsword power and data distribution harness, which uses e-textiles embedded within the uniform. BAE Systems

"Instead of plastic and circuit boards," says Thompson, "we use the conductive warp and weft to make up what these circuits can do." That allows technology to soup up items traditionally made from fabric, for example in fine-tuning which parts of a glove or deep-sea diver's suit are heated, ensuring the wearer is warm enough where needed without wasting the heating system's power. And it also allows versatile fabric to replace traditional hardware.

Speaking at the Wearable Technology Show here, Swallow describes ITL as a textile company that "pretends to be a military company...it's funny how you slip into these domains."

One domain where this high-tech fabric has seen frontline action is in the Canadian military's IAV Stryker armoured personnel carrier. ITL developed a full QWERTY keyboard in a single piece of fabric for use in the Stryker, replacing a traditional hardware keyboard that involved 100 components. Multiple components allow for repair, but ITL knits in redundancy so the fabric can "degrade gracefully". The keyboard works the same as the traditional hardware, with the bonus that it's less likely to fall on a soldier's head, and with just one glaring downside: troops can no longer use it as a step for getting in and out of the vehicle.

An armoured car with knitted controls is one thing, but where the technology comes into its own is when used about the person. ITL has worked on vests like the JTAC, a system "for the guys who call down airstrikes" and need "extra computing oomph." Then there's SWIPES, a part of the US military's Nett Warrior system -- which uses a chest-mounted Samsung Galaxy Note 2 smartphone -- and British military company BAE's Broadsword system.

ITL is currently working on Spirit, a "truly wearable system" for the US Army and United States Marine Corps. It's designed to be modular, scalable, intuitive and invisible.

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These body armour systems are "like a ring main in a house," as Thompson puts it, bristling with sockets built into the surface of the vest for power and data connections. "The military have a lot of different connectors," says Swallow. Many of those connectors were originally designed for use in a vehicle, but have been transferred into the kit that troops are expected to wear. So ITL is working to develop a connector for people.

That means connectors need to be versatile and accessible, whether the wearer is left- or right-handed. And if a socket breaks, the wearer needs to be able to simply move the radio or computer to a different socket.

"The requirements of the past go out of the window when you start thinking about a wearable for a person," says Swallow. Plugging something in when you're in a vehicle with two free hands is one thing, but a soldier in the field, he points out, "might only have one hand if you're holding a rifle. You might have to do it in the dark, when you're scared, when you're being shot at."

A poster advising US Army troops to use lithium batteries in their equipment. PEO Soldier, army.mil

In modern warfare, a typical soldier is carrying their weapon, body armour, GPS, a radio, night vision kit and much more. That "battle rattle" adds up to about 50kg (110 pounds) of equipment -- "that's the weight of a pretty sizeable girlfriend", as Swallow puts it. "The Taliban apparently calls our troops 'donkeys' because they're carrying so much stuff and sweating, while [a Taliban fighter] is carrying a gun, a bottle of water and a cellphone."

But a bigger problem than humping all this kit is powering it. According to ITL, military forces go through more batteries than bullets -- partly because a soldier simply disposes of 70 per cent of that power. In order to ensure a battery doesn't fail in the field, at the beginning of a mission they will change all batteries, which can take 40 minutes. And if the battery cover of a piece of kit is lost, there's no taping the batteries in like you would with a TV remote: the equipment is rendered unusable.

Equipment for the military is designed to stand up to stresses and strains that consumer kit can only dream about, because in literal life-or-death situations, failure is not an option. But there are degrees of toughness: what a vehicle goes through is very different to what a person goes through. "Why build in cost when you don't need to?" asks Thompson.

"A friend of ours in the Canadian military worked out the electrons in an AA battery on the front line are the most expensive electrons in the solar system -- more expensive than the ones they send into space," Swallow said. "From the moment you buy a battery in [UK newsagent chain] WH Smith, the cost multiplies by at least a hundred by the time they ship it out to the front line."

Cost is an important factor to the military, the government and, ultimately, the taxpayer. ITL reckons its technology helps to keep costs down, with automatically woven fabrics replacing manufacturing processes in which teams of people solder kit together. "I'm not allowed to call it cheap," says Thompson, "but it's relatively inexpensive."

"We were asked for help by the Canadian military about seven years ago," remembers Swallow, "because they had this problem with cables." Soldiers can't use wireless technology such as Bluetooth or ZigBee, because they can be detected and jammed -- so wired technology it is. But "soldiers hate cables," says Swallow.

"They're fine inside a vehicle, but as soon as you put a cable on the human body it starts flexing, and over time that's what kills [the cable]." So ITL explores ways to replace wires with textiles. "Instead of being thick, heavy and prone to breaking, like a cable, textiles can spread the same number of conductors across a broad space. Not only does that save weight, it's also more flexible and can be disappeared into a garment such as a load-carrying or ballistic vest."

Those principles work for batteries too. Power packs can be purpose-built for the body rather than loading the soldier down with batteries designed to sit inside devices or vehicles. And if you thought wireless charging in Starbucks or Ikea furniture was cool, then check this out: the Broadsword vest includes an inductive charging plate that draws power from wireless charging plates built into the seats of vehicles, so soldiers can recharge their kit as they mount up and move to their next mission.

Thompson describes military kit as a case of "technology pull", with the systems designed by ITL "providing a solution to a real problem".

"It's like a technological swan," says Swallow. "It looks easy to use on the surface but it's working hard beneath the surface."

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