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Forward-looking: The US government has embarked on a 42-month journey to make what it calls performance-grade, computerized clothing a reality. Products developed through the program could assist government agencies within the intelligence community, such as the Department of Defense and the Department of Homeland Security, in their tasks. Additionally, these products could prove valuable to first responders and individuals operating in high-stress environments.
The Smart Electrically Powered and Networked Textile Systems (SMART ePANTS) program is being led by the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA), the advanced R&D arm of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. IARPA involves itself in high-risk, high-payoff research programs to overcome leading challenges within the intelligence community.
According to the ODNI, the program represents the single largest investment into the development of smart textiles that can record audio, video, and geolocation data while looking, moving, and feeling like an ordinary garment.
A separate report from The Intercept claims the government has sunk at least $22 million into the project, and that the first wave of wearables could include shirts, pants, socks, and even underwear.
IARPA first round of contracts were awarded to some familiar names including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Nautilus Defense. Partners at MIT Lincoln Laboratory and Advanced Functional Fabrics of America will help ensure the program stays on track, we're told.
Smart fabrics that are bendable, stretchable, comfortable, and washable sound like something straight out of a James Bond film. IARPA would have you believe that this is some sort of cutting-edge, first-of-its-kind program but the truth is, scientists as well as those in the public and private sector have been working with eTextile technology for years, perhaps even decades.
The US government is no stranger to throwing gobs of money at R&D projects, and not all of them work out. The Tactical Assault Light Operator Suit (TALOS), for example, was proposed in 2013 by the US Special Operations Command but eventually shut down in 2019. The effort reportedly burned through at least $80 million in funding.
Image credit: Killian Cartignies