The military's uniforms will probably never be runway ready, but in the future, a soldier's threads might very well be quite a bit sharper.
As in, more intelligent. At least if the Office of Naval Research gets its way. On ONR's latest call for research proposals, the organisation is asking for uniforms to be capable of measuring soldiers' vital signs, detecting the location and severity of their bullet wounds and even transmitting their location to medical personnel via GPS sensors implanted into clothing fabric.
The initiative, called "Intelligent Clothing for Rapid Response to Aid Wounded Soldiers", isn't the first time the military has tried to "futurise" its uniforms. In 2004, a major US Army effort to entirely reboot soldiers' fatigues — called Future Force Warrior — tried to revamp uniforms using lightweight body armour, "e-textiles" (durable cloth interwoven with wires) and gel sensors meant to transmit a soldier's vital signs back to base. That initiative was later scrapped, but the military's dreams of smarter suit-ups continued: The US Army, for one, even "maintained contact with Hollywood and the video game industry in order to exchange ideas" about cutting-edge uniforms designs. And now, this.
ONR's ideal uniforms would use a bevy of "integrated sensors built into fabric" to monitor every aspect of a soldier's wellbeing, and then transmit that information to medical personnel. In addition to vital signs and bullet wounds, the fabric sensors should be able to "detect exposure to chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear and explosive agents" by tapping into biomarkers found in soldiers' blood, saliva, sweat or urine. And where bullet wounds are concerned, the threads would do much more than merely detect their location. They'd also "estimate the depth of penetration and the affected surrounding organs".
Of course, the idea here isn't to replace medical care with material. It's to give medics and surgeons a major head start, by offering initial diagnostics that'll speed up the process. No doubt, that'd be an invaluable aid where soldier survival is concerned: odds of a military patient living through an injury plummet once a so-called "golden hour" has elapsed. So the quicker treatment can start, the better the likely outcome.
Developing smarter fabrics isn't an incredibly tall order. In the last five years, commercial ventures have made impressive progress toward lightweight "functional clothing" that can detect everything from an athlete's vital signs to a diabetic's blood-sugar level. One group out of Europe even created a fabric that can monitor muscle overload to prevent injury.
But creating sensors as sophisticated as what ONR wants is a tougher challenge. And combining so many sensors into a single uniform — vital signs, bullet detection, GPS — is another complicating factor. Not to mention integrating these systems into a fabric that can accomodate body armour and be weighted down with tons of gear. And one that's durable enough to withstand the rigours of combat and a variety of weather conditions.
Somebody should probably tell the military's chief clothing designers, over at Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering centre, about all those requirements. Because as recently as this past January, those guys were convinced that the future of fatigues rested in "developing, testing and evaluating … wool fabrics". Sounds … itchy. And not particularly futuristic.