It’s never been easier and cheaper to sew small electronic components into wearable clothing.
In this issue of Futuris, we are diving into the world of smart textiles that help improve health and safety.
On a small fishing boat crossing a fjord near Trondheim in Norway the nets have to be checked for the overnight catch.
Eldar has been a professional fisherman for over 40 years.
It is one of the riskiest jobs, thousands of fishermen around the world lose their lives every year – mostly by falling overboard and drowning.
“When the weather is bad, when there’s strong wind, it’s easy to fall overboard. That happened to me, and to some people I knew who didn’t survive,” said Eldar Aukan.
“It’s easy to fall out, and very hard to get back – your clothes get heavy when they’re wet, and the water is very cold,” he added.
The fisherman has a manual remote control to stop the boat’s engine in case of an accident. Eldar has to remember to carry it with him at all times.
He also needs some means to alert rescuers and help him stay afloat if he falls overboard.
Integrating electronics into the protective outfit can make all these emergency tools wearable and impossible to forget.
At Trondheim’s swimming pool scientists are testing the first prototype of a smart safety vest, developed as part of a European Union research project.
It has sealed sensors that trigger a number of life-saving measures in case of an accident, including an inflating buoyant ‘lung’ and an alarm.
Hilde Færevik, Coordinator for the SAFE @ SEA project, demonstrated the vest: “You can see here on my colleague – he has the lung integrated here – it’s expanded, and on the top of the lung you have the “man overboard” alarm. Of course, a main topic of the project has been how you can integrate this electronics into the material.”
The design took a lot of research. The sensors need to be correctly placed to distinguish a submersion into the sea from an accidental splash of water or rain, and the inflatable “lung” has to keep the head safely above the water even in strong waves.
The smart outfit has an automatic radio transmitter that sends a short-range distress signal to the receiver unit onboard. That allows the system to stop the boat, alert the crew and send the coordinates to the rescue services.
“It’s the intention that the receiver unit is mounted high on the mast of the boat,” said Håkon V. Døvre, Power Electronics Engineer from Delta Alarm.
“The signal from the victim will then radiate in all directions and will be picked up by the antenna here. It also has a GPS antenna that can send the information to the emergency centre.”
Making the technology reliable is not enough, the protective outfit needs to be comfortable to work in and easy to clean – or else fishermen will not use it.
“This is a first prototype, it’s kind of big now, it will be smaller and more flexible, just a comfortable part of the whole clothing – so that the fisherman will not notice that it is here actually,” added Hilde Færevik.
To ensure better functionality, comfort and safety, the fabric for the next generation of fishermen’s protective clothing needs to be reinvented.
That is a task being undertaken at the SINTEF chemical lab.
The materials the scientists are working on are made from a unique coating that makes it not just water-repellent but also self-repairing.
This compound contains microcapsules with a chemical that fixes scratches, making the protective outwear last longer.
Stephan Kubowicz, a Polymer materials scientist working for SINTEF, explained: “If you damage the coating, you also break the capsules, and what’s inside the capsules – a kind of healing repairing agent – comes out and closes the gap, and the coating is again like new.”
Smart textiles can save lives at sea but the fabrics can also help at home.
Researchers in Eindhoven have found a way to use blue light-emitting diodes to relieve back pain. The result is an innovative consumer product that is becoming available commercially.
“The 40 LEDs are mounted on a piece of material. The device is very flexible, very bendable and that the strap with the patch inside will follow your body form,” said Gregor Jelen, Product Manager at Philips Lighting.
The blue light stimulates production of nitric oxide in the skin, relaxing the muscles and improving the blood circulation, which results in pain relief.
The effect is enhanced by the heat radiated by the light-emitting diodes.
An infrared sensor is used to prevent any risk to skin or eyes. The developers say the device is absolutely safe to use at home, as it does not emit any harmful UV radiation.
Large-scale clinical studies are underway to measure the exact healing power of the technology.
Safety and comfort were a priority for the designers who find great creative potential in e-textiles.
Rogier van der Heide, a Lighting Designer at Philips Lighting, said: “There are still challenges in the application of LED in fabrics, but it’s getting easier and easier. Batteries are still a little bit large, and have a limited operation time, controls of LEDs have to become sturdier, more reliable. But we are working at it, and we’re getting there.”
The technology – developed as part of an EU-funded project – is easily compatible with existing production lines.
This helps make the production of textile-based electronics cheap and easy. Pieces of fabric go through the same machines that usually process traditional circuit boards.
Heat can damage the synthetic fibres. So instead of soldering, conductive glue is used to attach the light-emitting elements to the thin copper wires interwoven in the fabric.
As LEDs are quite efficient, a compact battery can ensure several treatment cycles between recharges.
Koen van Os, a Coordinator for the PLACE-IT project, says there are no safety worries: “Here you see our device which has been built of low-power electronics, it’s not a high voltage, it’s low current, so it’s absolutely safe to wear that close to your body.
“Because of the price drop recently – and it’s a process that has been going on for years already – it is becoming much more feasible to make large-area lighting devices based on LEDs.”
With their countless applications, electronic textiles are making lives better on so many levels – health and safety is just two of them.