Intel Researchers Explore Making Adaptive Computer Systems that Can Be Worn Like Comfy Clothes

The Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity wants information to accelerate the design of smart, responsive textiles.

The intelligence community’s research arm might soon develop next-generation electronic clothing that senses and physically adapts to each wearer’s fitness and surroundings, and can process and transmit decision-driving data about their whereabouts. 

In a request for information published this week, the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity expressed aims to accelerate the making of SMART e-PANTS—or Smart Electrically Powered and Networked Textile Systems—for national security officials, first responders, professional athletes and others who work in high-stress settings.

“Desired operating times range from ten minutes to eight hours,” officials wrote in the notice. 

This SMART e-PANTS pursuit represents IARPA’s first-ever research venture investigating textile-based computer systems, Nextgov confirmed on Friday. 

Based on conversations with their IC partners, IARPA officials learned that law enforcement, military, and first responders are seeing an increase in the volume of technologies they must carry on the job, such as body cameras, contact devices, and location-tracking systems. Like many IARPA efforts, an official from the organization explained, SMART e-PANTS is an example of an endeavor inspired by a program manager’s “creative thinking” to address IC capability gaps.

Technology-boosted garments that don’t require bulky, rigid devices strapped to people’s bodies have “long been envisioned,” officials noted in the RFI. 

But now, the “burgeoning new field” of active smart textile, or AST, research exists, which could make it a reality. That realm involves manufacturing fabrics that can “adapt and change their functionality in response to changes in their” wearers’ environments or movements, officials wrote. While passive smart textiles rely on their basic structures to function, ASTs use energy to power built-in components like sensors and actuators that can save, interpret or react to the information captured.

Recently, some experiments that involve transferring the capabilities of those more stiff wearable devices into ASTs—like computer components printable on cloth and “scrunchable” batteries—have emerged.  

“To transfer this research into AST products, however, revolutionary new materials and manufacturing techniques are needed to develop textile-friendly system components that resemble garments rather than rigid structures,” officials wrote. “This RFI seeks innovative approaches to improve the effective performance limits of AST integrated systems and their components.”

Though equipped with advanced technological elements, the SMART e-PANTS envisioned down the line would essentially look like regular clothing. 

IARPA’s notice lists six components the unit is interested in incorporating within ASTs. They include:

  • Sensors that capture audio, video and geolocation information.
  • Power sources like batteries, supercapacitors or energy harvesters, which use body heat or excretion as an energy source.
  • Microprocessors and other devices used for computation and data storage.
  • Data transfer systems.
  • Wires to enable connections between AST elements. 
  • Haptics that indicate “device status to the wearer by changing shape, size, vibration, or producing some other discernable user response.”

Of particular interest to the agency are RFI responses regarding the incorporation of such components into a single textile or entire AST system, or technological components that are flexible, stretchable or washable—and can be assessed by an independent test. 

This notice ultimately marks a move by the organization to explore whether the technological barriers to creating ASTs can be overcome, and if researchers are interested in and capable of pushing such a paradigm shift for the IC, the IARPA official told Nextgov on Friday. Results of the RFI will help determine if an official research program should be formed.

Interested entities that could support this plan for innovation are invited to submit their ideas by Jan. 31.