Inside Intelligent Textiles: making smart materials for the military
When you think of military suppliers, what springs to mind might be huge corporations, questionable ethics and protesters handcuffing themselves to railings. Intelligent Textiles is not your average military contractor.
A two-person firm operating from a small workshop in Staines-upon-Thames, Intelligent Textiles has recently landed a multimillion-pound deal with the US Department of Defense, and is working with the Ministry of Defence (MoD) to bring its potentially life-saving technology to British soldiers. Not bad for a company that only a few years ago was selling novelty cushions.
Smart materials means smarter fabrics
Intelligent Textiles was born in 2002, almost by accident. Asha Peta Thompson, an arts student at Central Saint Martins, had been using textiles to teach children with special needs. That work led to a research grant from Brunel University, where she was part of a team tasked with creating a “talking jacket” for the disabled. The garment was designed to help cerebral palsy sufferers to communicate, by pressing a button on the jacket to say “my name is Peter”, for example, instead of having a Stephen Hawking-like communicator in front of them.
Another member of that Brunel team was engineering lecturer Dr Stan Swallow, who was providing the electronics expertise for the project. Pretty soon, the pair realised the prototype waistcoat they were working on wasn’t going to work: it was cumbersome, stuffed with wires, and difficult to manufacture. “That’s when we had the idea that we could weave tiny mechanical switches into the surface of the fabric,” said Thompson.
The pair took the afternoon off to discuss the concept in the place where all great ideas are shaped – the pub – and Intelligent Textiles was off and running.
The conductive weave had several advantages over packing electronics into garments. “It reduces the amount of cables,” said Thompson. “It can be worn and it’s also washable, so it’s more durable. It doesn’t break; it can be worn next to the skin; it’s soft. It has all the qualities of a piece of fabric, so it’s a way of repackaging the electronics in a way that’s more user-friendly and more comfortable.” The key to Intelligent Textiles’ product isn’t so much the nature of the raw materials used, but the way they’re woven together. “All our patents are in how we weave the fabric,” Thompson explained. “We weave two conductive yarns to make a tiny mechanical switch that is perfectly separated or perfectly connected. We can weave an electronic circuit board into the fabric itself.”
In the first few years of the business, Intelligent Textiles found all sorts of uses for its fabrics – Qwerty keyboards, luxury snowboarding jackets with integrated iPod controls, cushions with built-in remote controls – but the founders weren’t satisfied. “I hate to say it, but Stan and I really thought that a lot of what we were doing was gimmicky,” said Thompson. “A remote-control cushion is great for somebody with cerebral palsy who can’t access a normal remote control and needs bigger buttons, but it wasn’t a killer application for our technology.”
Smart materials in military manoeuvres
Intelligent Textiles’ big break into the military market came when they met a British textiles firm that was supplying camouflage gear to the Canadian armed forces. The firm was attending an exhibition in Canada and invited the Intelligent Textiles duo to join them. “We showed a heated glove and an iPod controller,” said Thompson. “The Canadians said ‘that’s really fantastic, but all we need is power. Do you think you could weave a piece of fabric that distributes power?’ We said, ‘we’re already doing it’.”Before long it wasn’t only power that the Canadians wanted transmitted through the fabric, but data.
“The problem a soldier faces at the moment is that he’s carrying 60 AA batteries [to power all the equipment he carries],” said Thompson. “He doesn’t know what state of charge those batteries are at, and they’re incredibly heavy. He also has wires and cables running around the system. He has snag hazards – when he’s going into a firefight, he can get caught on door handles and branches, so cables are a real no-no.”
The Canadians invited the pair to speak at a NATO conference, where they were approached by military brass with more familiar accents. “It was there that we were spotted by the British MoD, who said ‘wow, this is a British technology but you’re being funded by Canada’,” said Thompson. That led to £235,000 of funding from the Centre for Defence Enterprise (CDE) – the money they needed to develop a fabric wiring system that runs all the way through the soldier’s vest, helmet and backpack.
The squaddies’ uniform was thus turned into a power- and data-distribution system containing a single battery pack, eliminating trailing wires and the need to spend 40 minutes at the end of each day checking whether the AA cells need replacing. The grant also allowed them to make the technology less conspicuous, using electromagnetic screening to prevent soldiers being detected by enemy troops while wearing their super-charged uniform.
Soon after, the technology came onto the Americans’ radar. Now Intelligent Textiles is part of a lucrative joint Department of Defense development project with multinationals such as BAE, to develop the next generation of American military uniforms.
“The exciting thing is that it not only pulls in people doing uniforms, but it also pulls in different power suppliers, all the different research organisations from within the US who wouldn’t normally work together,” said Thompson. “You have to think about how the vehicle is going to interact with the soldier, how the soldier interacts with his peripherals, his communication devices, how he interacts with the base. The whole thing is joined-up thinking, finally.”