Okay, SMART ePANTS, you tell us how to create network-connected textiles
Soldiers, first responders may eventually be able to phone home from their clothes
The US government is investing in network-connected garments through a program called – we kid you not – SMART ePANTS.
Last month, the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA), which handles research and development for Uncle Sam's Office of the Director of National Intelligence, announced the launch of a program called Smart Electrically Powered and Networked Textile Systems, which IARPA has reduced to SMART ePANTS.
A name like that is the sort of announcement one expects to see on an April 1 list, but IARPA has been trying this idea on for size for a while now. It issued a Request for Information (RFI) in early 2022 to solicit proposals to create active smart textiles that can keep soldiers, first responders, and others safe "by sensing, processing and communicating information on individuals' location and physical surroundings (audio and video recording)."
In July that year SMART ePANTS program director Dr Dawson Cagle appeared in a video and explained the project’s goal is to take four established technologies – power sources, sensors, computers/storage, and interconnects/haptics – and combine them into a single garment.
"The SMART ePANTS goal is to take all of those individual components and to convert them, to integrate them into a single device that you can wear," he said in the vid.
The name, we're told, was chosen to be "memorable and descriptive."
Now the project is moving forward with research contracts that have been awarded to SRI International, MIT, Nautilus Defense, Leidos, and Areté.
"The SMART ePANTS program's goal is to build sensor systems that are comfortably integrated," an IARPA spokesperson told The Register. "The goal is not to extend the interface of a phone — IARPA seeks to weave components, like the ones inside a phone, into the garment itself."
The agency believes this can be achieved within three and half years.
"To date, most of the work done on active smart textiles (AST) research was devoted to individual technical components," the IARPA rep said. "SMART ePANTS aims to integrate these AST components into fully functional sensor systems that also happen to be garments."
IARPA expects the greatest technical challenges to be: durable wiring and interconnects between components that can withstand stretching, bending, and washing; power sources that have properties suited for textiles; user interfaces or haptics that are both function and still behave like fabric; and computers and data storage that can be placed on a textile substrate instead of a rigid circuit board.
However, IARPA wants to push the state of the art.
"SRI has an impressive history with integrating electronics onto a wearable platform, like DARPA's Warrior Project," IARPA's spokesperson said. "SRI's knowledge in this area is certainly helpful, but it is their partnership with North Carolina State University (NCSU) that really makes this a powerful team in the SMART ePANTS program."
"More than a decade ago, the National Science Foundation created the ASSIST Center at NCSU to support wearable electronics research for medical applications. IARPA hopes that the fusion of knowledge between these two institutions will give rise to paradigm-shifting innovation."
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At the conclusion of DARPA's Warrior Project, SRI director of robotics Rich Mahoney left to form an outfit named Seismic, which makes a powered vest that augments workers' strength to reduce the risk of back injury from heavy or repetitive lifting.
A sales contractor working with the company told The Register that Seismic is still selling the first version of its assistive vest and expects to have a second version ready in the fourth quarter of the year.
An August 9 contract announcement from the US Navy describes the research Nautilus Defense will undertake as related to “singular micro yarn textile routing platform with unmatched low-power electronics.” The Rhode Island-based defense firm was awarded $11.6 million to develop network-capable textiles.
Leidos was awarded $10.6 million to “develop, integrate, fabricate, and test and delivery prototype wearable, washable garments that incorporate active smart textiles components.”
"The data-gathering capabilities provided by the SMART ePANTS program will also help arms control inspectors and law enforcement personnel to record information during their work without having to lug around cumbersome cameras or other recording equipment, focusing instead on staying safe in dangerous surroundings," IARPA's spokesperson said. "Eventually, we hope that the technology will be adopted by medical appliances and sports performance applications."
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While the goal of the program is to give cloths the capability to capture audio, video, and location data, IARPA expects the consumer benefit of this program will be flexible, washable computing components rather than wearable sensors.
"When taken together, an integrated platform such as this would have enormous implications for the medical and sports industries," IARPA's spokesperson said.
To date, efforts to commercialize smart clothing have underwhelmed, at least in the consumer market. Google talked up Project Jacquard, but lack of adoption prompted the ad biz to discontinue its Jacquard app earlier this year.
That's not particularly surprising given the meager functionality of Jacquard-based garments, such as the Levi's Trucker Jacket, which allows the wearer to swipe its sleeve to control basic smartphone functions.
Reg vulture Simon Sharwood has one of the Jacquard jackets and found it perfectly nice clobber, though gimmicky rather than a significant innovation.
"While researchers have been working diligently on [active smart textile] component development for over a decade, no entity has challenged the industry to fully integrate these solutions into a single system for a specific application," IARPA's spokesperson said. "IARPA is proudly taking on this challenge." ®