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New Smart Fabric Manufacturer Looking to Break Into Defense Market 


By Valerie Insinna 

A new smart fabric used in one of jazz musician Herbie Hancock’s electric keyboards could find its way into military gear.

Keith McMillen Instruments has recently spun off a smart fabric company, Bebop Sensors, with the hope of partnering with original equipment manufacturers in the defense, aerospace and other industries, said the founder of both companies, Keith McMillen.

Unlike most other wearable sensors, which typically measure physiological data such as heart rate and respiration, the sensors in Bebop’s fabric can also measure other kinds of contact between a person and his or her environment, McMillen said. “We can measure pressure, location, bend, twist, stretch.”

That same fabric is used in the QuNeo electric keyboard designed by McMillen and played by professional musicians like Hancock. The instrument is as small as a tablet computer, but the user can modify the sound of a musical note by swiping or putting more pressure on a button, for instance.

To make its smart fabric, Bebop attaches microscopic polymerized conductors into a material. The attachments are flexible and invisible to the naked eye, but “when you squeeze the fabric or stretch the fabric, the relationship of these particles changes and we’re able to detect that,” he said. The company can treat a variety of fabrics with this technology, including spandex, felt or mesh.

A single sensor about 15 millimeters in diameter could cost less than a quarter, depending on how it was attached to the fabric, McMillen said. The sensors are waterproof and can function in both below-freezing and boiling temperatures.

“We’ve had some discussions with organizations that work with the military and other government agencies, and there’s a lot of interest,” he said. “There are applications galore.”

The material could be used on the wearable water reservoirs carried by troops, allowing commanding officers to detect when soldiers are in danger of becoming dehydrated, he said. If a soldier was wearing a suit made of the smart fabric, “you could also measure the activity of the person in a very subtle way that could indicate if a man is down or if he’s just laying low.”

Photo Credit: Bebop Sensors
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