Like Regular Clothes, But Smart!

July 17, 2023

Over the last decade, wearable smart technology has become commonplace in society. From heartrate monitors to smart watches, from fitness bracelets to smart rings, the world is awash in wearable internet-connected devices that let people see their email and text messages, track their steps, monitor their heartrate and blood sugar, and show athletes their biking, running, or swimming times.

Developers have long imagined ways to make smart clothing that performs these same tasks, but this dream has proven elusive so far, since today’s electronics cannot easily be made stretchable, bendable, nor washable. What’s more, electronic clothing would not likely be an initial commercial success, since it would be very expensive. After all, the market is pretty small for a $500+ shirt that can’t be washed.

Not surprisingly, the Intelligence Community (IC), Department of Defense (DoD), and first responders at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and other agencies are also interested in wearable electronics. With its Smart Electrically Powered and Networked Textile Systems (SMART ePANTS) program, the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA) is delivering the largest single investment ever made1 to make Advanced Smart Textiles2 (AST) a reality.

According to SMART ePANTS Program Manager, Dr. Dawson Cagle, developing clothing with sensor systems that can record audio, video, and geolocation data would significantly improve the capabilities of IC, DoD, DHS staff, and others working in dangerous or high-stress environments, such as crime scenes and arms control inspections. Dr. Cagle also asserted that ASTs could collect information one doesn’t notice, which would increase job effectiveness.

“As a former weapons inspector myself, I know how much hand-carried electronics can interfere with my situational awareness at inspection sites,” Dr. Cagle said. “In unknown environments, I’d rather have my hands free to grab ladders and handrails more firmly and keep from hitting my head than holding some device.”

Eventually, it’s believed the same underlying technology could be used to perform some tasks that are done with cell phones today, reducing distracted driving or “zombie walking” through traffic intersections. If more durable, comfortable, and even stylish AST garments are made, Dr. Cagle believes more people will use the technology.

To achieve these goals, IARPA plans to develop AST electronic components that are completely integrated into fabric; something no group—public or private—has achieved to date. “Making smart clothing with the same ‘feel’ as regular clothing is critical for SMART ePANTS’ success,” Dr. Cagle said. “This means sensors need to be integrated in such a way that the AST garment is just as stretchable, bendable, and supple as a comparable garment containing no electronics.”

Dr. Cagle also noted that nobody has ever successfully produced an integrated electronics system in casual clothing that can be washed and reused—a key SMART ePANTS program goal. “If we are successful in this pursuit, I believe that wearable electronics will enter an entirely new learning curve, inspiring a new industry with products that perform many unforeseen applications,” he said.

Program development will take place over three phases. These include an initial 18-month “proof of concept” or “build it” phase, a subsequent 12-month “wear it” phase, and a final, 12-month “wash it” phase.

This summer, 2023, IARPA is expected to announce the SMART ePANTS awardees, from among brilliant proposals submitted by universities, and both small and large companies. The awardees will work closely with IARPA’s Test and Evaluation partner at MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory and the Advanced Functional Fabrics of America organization to ensure that the program stays on track to meet IARPA’s vision for ASTs of the future.

“With this program, IARPA has the opportunity to usher in the next generation of the Internet of Things,” Dr. Cagle said. “We’ve moved computers into our smart phones. This is the chance to move computers into our clothing and help the IC, DoD, DHS, and other agencies improve their mission capabilities at the same time.”



1 Assessment made by the US DoD-funded Advanced Functional Fabrics of America (AFFOA) Director of Research.

2 Generally, Advanced Smart Textiles (ASTs) are fabrics that contain electronic systems that are able to sense and/or react to signals from their environment.

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