HONOLULU — Light and thermal sensing fibers that are embedded in uniforms can both alert soldiers that they have been targeted by laser range finders and permit them to hear communications via infrared light.
This new technology was developed by scientists at the Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
“What we’ve been able to do is actually make fibers that have the precision and capabilities of electronic devices,” said John Joannopoulos, one of the researchers on the team.
The optoelectronic fiber-devices are composed of metal parts, semiconductors and insulators that have been melted and drawn into thin fibers less than half a millimeter in diameter.
To demonstrate applications of the technology for the military, the fibers were woven into a mesh to fit on a standard Army Kevlar helmet. The mesh was connected to several flexible circuit boards to be worn on the soldier’s back, powered by a nine-volt battery. LED lights, also connected to the circuit boards, were placed on four sides of the helmet.
Beaming an infrared light at the helmet caused the LED lights to flash, an indication of a friendly soldier on the ground. That same IR beam also was used to transmit vocal communications to the soldier, whose earpiece was connected to the circuit board.
“When I first saw this, I said, ‘I sure could’ve used this in Iraq.’ It definitely would’ve been a good way to do business,” said Maj. Rex Blair, who served in southern Iraq as a company commander with the 1st Battalion, 8th Cavalry Regiment in the Army’s 5th Brigade, 1st Cavalry Division.
In Iraq, there were missions when he’d have squads or platoons moving down the road and he’d get call from his commander with a change in orders. Because the units didn’t have enough military radios on hand, he would rely on commercially purchased radios or he would send runners out to relay messages.
If this technology is incorporated into soldiers’ uniforms, communicating with on-the-move units may one day be expeditious and secure.
“Because the whole uniform is made up of these fibers, even if all you can see is a soldier’s sleeve, I can talk to him. That’s an incredible capability,” said Blair, who worked on the Fiber Web team as a uniformed Army scientist while completing his master’s degree at Harvard University.
The Fiber Web team is working on making the fibers multifunctional, said Joannopoulos.
The technology is being evaluated at the Army’s Natick Soldier Systems Center and is being assessed by the Army for potential training uses.
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