In a futuristic blend of fashion and technology, the U.S. Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA) has unveiled, SMART ePANTS, a ground-breaking initiative to develop computerized clothing with astonishing capabilities.
These high-tech garments not only promise comfort and wearability but also pack an array of features that leap straight from the plot of a futuristic espionage novel.
The sensors that make these functionalities possible are woven into a garment’s fabric, creating what is known as “Active Smart Textiles” (ASTs).
“Active smart textile (ASTs) research is a burgeoning field where fabrics are designed to adapt and change their functionality in response to changes to their external environment and/or user input,” internal IRAPA documents note.
“By weaving these devices directly into garments, Intelligence Community staff will be able to record information from their environment hands-free, without the need to wear uncomfortable, bulky, and rigid devices. As a result, personnel will have greater range of motion, thus improving their response time in challenging circumstances.”
Working in collaboration with prominent institutions and defense companies, including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Leidos, Areté, Nautilus Defense, and SRI International, IRAPA says it is leading the charge in developing Active Smart Textiles that could serve multiple sectors—from intelligence operations to emergency services.
“IARPA is proud to lead this first-of-its-kind effort for both the IC and broader scientific community, which will bring much-needed innovation to the field of ASTs,” SMART ePANTS program manager Dr. Dawson Cagle noted in a press release issued by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI). “To date, no group has committed the time and resources necessary to fashion the first integrated electronics that are stretchable, bendable, comfortable, and washable like regular clothing.”
In 2020, industry forecasts estimated that smart textiles would balloon into a $5.5 billion market by 2025. Fast forward to 2023, and that projection has been updated to suggest that the global smart textile industry could swell to an astounding $13.8 billion by 2030. IARPA’s entry into the intelligent clothing arena will only accelerate market growth and drive significant technological advancements.
In program documents obtained by The Debrief, IRAPA makes it clear it is not interested in “passive smart textiles,” like Gore-Tex, that cannot react to changes in environmental conditions. Instead, the agency wants to advance intelligent fabrics that can “adapt and change their functionality in response to changes in the external environment or in response to a user input.”
The innovative technology that will make SMART ePANTS possible includes weavable conductive polymers serving as the textile’s wiring, energy harvesters powered by the person wearing the garment, “ultra-low power printable computers on cloth,” recording devices that act like threads and “scrunchable batteries.”
In a Proposers Day event hosted last year by the Naval Information Warfare Center, IARPA told prospective industry partners that SMART ePANTS garments should incorporate sensors that would allow for up to 60 minutes of audio and recording and an indoor geolocation system that could provide relative readings every 10 minutes for one hour.
The smart clothing should also allow for data storage and off-loading and a power source for up to 8 hours of continuous operation between rechargings.
These sensors and power capabilities should be covertly incorporated into the clothing, with officials stressing that any rigid parts “must be natural parts of the clothing,” such as grommets, zippers, buttons, or collar stays.
The advanced research and development arm of the U.S. Intelligence Community said it would also not accept any designs that required external devices, employed radioactive or toxic materials, were visually or aurally conspicuous, or did not produce an integrated system.
The benefit for the Intelligence Community in covertly embedding sensors in one’s clothing is apparent. However, IARPA says the advancement of active smart textiles “could also assist personnel and first responders in dangerous, high-stress environments, such as crime scenes and arms control inspections, without impeding their ability to swiftly and safely operate.”
IARPA also highlights the potential for flexible, washable ASTs to improve public health and connectivity. “SMART ePANTS success can transform commercial markets,” agency internal documents note.
The SMART ePANTS program has been outlined in three developmental phases: an 18-month period focused on creating a reusable, flexible, stretchable integrated AST; a 12-month period for crafting a functional prototype; and a final 12-month period to refine the prototype for comfort, durability, and washability.
As part of the 42-month project timeline, MIT Lincoln Laboratory and Advanced Functional Fabrics of America will serve as test and evaluation partners, ensuring the development meets scientific rigor and functionality standards.
With its SMART ePANTS program, IARPA hopes to redefine what clothing can do and map out a future where a person’s wardrobe could revolutionize how we perceive and engage with technology in our daily lives.
Tim McMillan is a retired law enforcement executive, investigative reporter and co-founder of The Debrief. His writing typically focuses on defense, national security, the Intelligence Community and topics related to psychology. You can follow Tim on Twitter:@LtTimMcMillan. Tim can be reached by email: firstname.lastname@example.org or through encrypted email:LtTimMcMillan@protonmail.com