Networked clothing getting closer

Sewing machines create micro-thin embroidered antennas that could bring cheap, comfortable e-textiles to the IoT

Networked clothing getting closer
Credit: Jo McCulty, the Ohio State University.

Clothes with embroidered electronics that can act as internet-connecting antennas or as health monitors are just around the corner.

High-precision embroidered circuits have been woven into fabrics with 0.1mm accuracy in experiments. That kind of precision could allow in-clothing antennas to be matched perfectly to radio waves and for sensors to be incorporated into fabrics in such a way as to feel the same on skin as the base material, scientists from Ohio State University say.

The revolutionary “functional textile” medium will be known as “e-textiles,” John Volakis, director of the ElectroScience Laboratory at Ohio State University, said in a news release. His team has developed the precise technique.

“A revolution is happening in the textile industry,” says Volakis, who is also the Roy and Lois Chope Chair Professor of Electrical Engineering at Ohio State University.

In addition to wearable, clothing-incorporated precise antennas—antennas need to be matched by length to their operating frequency—other uses might include bandages with sensors that can tell if a wound is healing and sports clothing that can measure fitness a la sports bands.

“We believe that functional textiles are an enabling technology for communications and sensing, and one day even medical applications like imaging and health monitoring,” says Volakis.

Garments that collect, store and send information are a logical next step for IoT. However, one of the problems with wiring in clothing is that it becomes hard for the user to move around. Think headphones.

Possibility for hospitals

Hospitals—a user group that is often forced to use wires because wireless can cause interference—could be a market for gown-embedded wiring.

Currently some patients in a hospital are allocated an expensive bed not because they need to lie down, but because they need to be attached to monitoring gear. Consolidating the wiring and sensors into the garment could conceivably help free up real estate space. (I’ve written before about how hospitals have been looking at using Li-Fi, or visible-light communications, in lieu of bulky wires.)

Ohio State’s e-textiles are stitched on a traditional table-top sewing machine. And like many modern sewing machines, it’s a computer file-run design that tells the machine where to sew.

The “pattern is loaded by a computer” file, the Ohio State University article explains. “The researchers substitute the thread with fine silver metal wires that, once embroidered, feel the same as traditional thread to the touch.”

The key has been getting the same precision as found in PCBs, which Volakis and research scientist Asimina Kiourti say they’ve gotten.

“The shape of the embroidery determines the frequency of operation of the antenna or circuit,” Kiourti told the university publication.

The antennas that they produce are suitable for broadband, she says.

Each one “consists of more than half a dozen interlocking geometric shapes, each a little bigger than a fingernail,” Kiourti says. They “form an intricate circle a few inches across. Each piece of the circle transmits energy at a different frequency, so that they cover a broad spectrum of energies when working together. Hence the broadband capability of the antenna for cell phone and internet access.”

And the antennas are cheap. Each one uses around 10 feet of thread. That costs only 30 cents, the scientists explain.

And the embroidery doesn’t have to be just in textiles. A tire manufacturer apparently was interested enough to request testing in rubber. IoT to be Internet of Tires, maybe.

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