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The Augmented Human

Published: 01st Sep 2012 in OSA Magazine

Using technology to keep our workers and society safe, this article looks at hazard protection in human evolution, focusing on the applications of smart fabrics and intelligent textiles.

Introduction

From the heavy armour of ancient Greek armies to ultramodern SEAL uniforms, the long and gradual evolution of protective textiles has only recently accelerated. The last ten to 15 years outline the basic features of a transition into smart textiles.

Starting from solid protection, such as hard material against material, intelligent material now supplements hard material. By having new tools to monitor themselves, humans have become ‘augmented humans’.

The intelligence of the individual ‘augmented human’ is supplemented by a network which supplies information on the hazardous environment; for example, alerting to the presence of danger, facilitating information exchange between workers in terms of voice and data, and providing information on changes in natural conditions, such as fires and hazardous gases.

Smart textiles have evolved since the late 1990s with, particularly in Europe, a trend towards new medical devices that can monitor personal physiological parameters to help manage lifestyle and health.

The market is nascent. During the development process, the features needed for personal monitoring were identified as extremely important for personal textiles. This was particularly so for the upcoming generation of textiles with features of intelligent material and augmentation through monitoring tools and networking.

The European Commission began supporting specific projects as early as 2002, notably with the Wearable Health Care System (WEALTHY) project, followed slightly later by one of the most coordinated efforts in this direction, the integrated MyHeart project.
From the foundations set by early smart textiles research, a number of other projects began addressing specific topics, such as biochemical sensing. By 2006, understanding of the importance of smart textiles for personal protection led to the first large scale pan-European effort in this domain, the Proetex project

Parallel penetration

Development in this area has only been amplified by the desire of the military to further improve the performance and protection of its terrestrial troops. This has particularly been the case in America but is also true of European countries, with France at the movement’s forefront.

Technological developments produced for one of the market subsegments, such as lifestyle or medical, shall benefit the personal protective smart textile market and vice versa. In this way, despite market fragmentation, the existence of the same or similar application requirements across markets exerts a strong homogenisation and leverage effect.

This will allow rapid parallel penetration of multiple market segments without the existence of a single ‘killer application’. The timing of such a penetration is difficult to predict; however, the lever of technological maturity and the explosion of the lifestyle market in the next five years may be the trigger which brings it about.

New horizons

Today’s technological tools make new functions possible, such as ensuring that where necessary personnel are aware of others’ operational activities.

Another application vital across many industrial sectors is to ensure that all personnel are monitored to determine if they become incapacitated. If this does occur, a smart textile supported extraction plan can then be rapidly put into effect.

Another benefit of smart textiles is their ability to predict an individual’s capacity to function, by monitoring physical and psychological stress.
They also determine environmental risks, such as thermal and chemical dangers from toxic gases, chemical agents and corrosive vapours, and physical hazards such as crushing, explosions or falls from height.

Each organisation should maintain a constantly updated plan for extraction of all personnel at minimal risk. In addition to this, it is also the responsibility of safety management to:
• Store an individual event log, per person, for preventive medicine and epidemiological studies
• Monitor the state of health and location of injured civilians in order to maintain an overall plan, such as in triage, based on relevant and constantly updated information

It is important to see how these technologies interact, how they are integrated into working systems and hence how they provide the functionalities required by any given application.

The technology

For the sake of simplicity, we have so far in this text used the term ‘smart textiles’, but from a technology perspective, what exactly is a smart textile? The community which has developed this domain usually applies the term smart fabrics and intelligent textiles (SFIT).

The term ‘smart fabrics’ relates to the behaviour of the fibre, the yarn and the fabric itself, which has to do with the first three links of the value chain. Adding ‘smartness’ at this level means modifying the reactivity of the material, even making some of this material part of a programmed machine, a microprocessor or a network of microprocessors.

In contrast, the term ‘intelligent textile’ usually denotes the capability of a system to integrate sensors, processors and sometimes actuators, and to behave in a programmed way.

A smart fabric can be a device that, using the properties of a nano coating, changes colour in the presence of methane. This can be very useful for security clothing in mining environments.

We can qualify as an intelligent textile a wearable device that concentrates information from multiple sensors, and processes the signal using a microprocessor to inform; for example, the emergency services of the health status of the wearer.

Why is this distinction important?

The distinction between smart fabrics and intelligent textiles is of such importance because it underlines the increasing complexity of an already complex value chain, with the addition of new players that add ‘smartness’ or ‘intelligence’. The question is how these new players in the value chain can shape credible business models, and which of them will endure and dominate. In the following, we will continue to use the term smart textiles to refer to the overall domain of SFIT.

What is a smart textile from the user’s perspective?

How a smart textile is defined, usually in terms of its function, varies considerably from source to source. Usually, the definition is determined by the function of its materials, such as carbon-nanotube based materials, its embedded intelligence and its sensing capabilities.

An important factor concerns what function the smart textile offers in terms of, for example, sensing or thinking, and consequently what added value is brought to the user.

What is becoming increasingly apparent today as a common denominator is the role of smart textiles as a technological support for the ‘augmented person’ of the future.

In a very similar way to that in which corrective lenses improve optical acuity, smart textiles can be seen as tools which improve functions such as:
• Perception of the environment and contextual awareness
• Monitoring of human health status
• Creating energy, such as when energy harvesting
• Adding cognitive capabilities
• Interacting and interfacing

Functions performed by wearable smart textiles, both currently and in the future, were not anticipated two decades ago.

They began with the pulse monitoring chest belt, such as those commonly used today which perform online monitoring of human physiological parameters and create new value chains and new market niches.

The expectation is that the new functionality of smart textiles – this new shell of the human being – will contribute to the creation of new market segments for products and services.

Sensing

Sensing can be examined from various angles: in the environment, in person, when sensing a person’s location, or as a subset of the above.

Sensing can also be categorised by types of measurement. For the human body in particular this can also mean the monitoring of physiological parameters; for example, body or skin temperature, posture and gesture and of biochemical parameters, such as perspiration.

Energy harvesting

Energy can be harvested from the interior of the textile or from the exterior world. The latter mainly concerns solar, thermal or mechanical energy, while the former concerns the mechanical and thermal energy produced by the human body.

Acting - actuating

Two types of actuating mechanisms are physiological and chemical. Physiological mechanisms acting on the human body do so through piezoelectric actuators, whereas chemical mechanisms can be through either surface or bulk property changes, as triggered by external stimuli or even chemical delivery, such as in controlled drug delivery.

Intelligence

Intelligence can be based on the use of one or more conventional microprocessors, or on the longer term use of the textile itself as part of the microprocessor. These considerations imply the natural separation between distributed versus concentrated intelligence.

Interface - including display

Different types of interface need to be considered – firstly, the interface which informs the user. This can be a display, acoustic or tactile interface, or any other stimulus which excites the nervous system.

Another consideration with regard to interfaces pertains to sensor-to-human as well as sensor-to-environment interfaces, which due to the stochastic behaviour of humans requires particular care.

Finally, one might consider interfaces in terms of telecommunication links to remote locations, such as for medical telemonitoring of first responders in emergency situations.

What does the future hold?

As an ultimate vision, we can consider that the future may hold a continuous increase in performance for each of the aforementioned functions, up to a reconfigurable human augmentation type and according to their environment, function and moment.

Such reconfigurability could be performed by dynamically modifying the textile; for instance by changing the parameters to be monitored. During one part of the day the parameters measured could focus on medical diagnostic needs, during another part of the day they could focus on industrial protective needs.

Returning to the present or even to the recent past, we can see the ancestors of such futuristic systems in our everyday life: a pulse monitoring chest belt or a pedometer are existing tools that allow us to monitor human beings and contribute to improving their capabilities through feedback; for example by improving training conditions for athletes.

The path towards increasingly complex smart textiles is nothing more than the increase in density of the sensors or actuators, and their ubiquitous and seamless integration into the immediate ‘human shell’ to augment human potential.

Taking this view of the smart textile as an ultimate shell, the main roles of any shell in terms of protection, aid, healing, entertainment, or enjoyment, should be integrated and mapped into specific market segments.

The functions of such a shell are continuously evolving, thus creating new markets and new opportunities for both products and services. In this logical first step, a higher diversity of the applications for smart textiles will emerge, serving existing or latent market needs.

Backbone of applications

In parallel, we have begun to observe a continuous convergence of application needs towards a common backbone: this forms the basis of a future market consolidation and the transition of smart textiles from a high-end product to a commodity.

SFIT configuration

We understand by the description of elementary functions without embedded intelligence, such as reactive colour change, that these functions operate without the use of microprocessor intelligence; for example, micelles that open or close depending on the chemical environment to release medication into the body.

Another good example of elementary functions consists of nanostructured patches embroidered on textiles that can, for example, change the colour of diffracted light when absorbing bodily fluids. This technology is especially useful in the detection of wound healing.

Embedded intelligence

We understand the configuration of embedded intelligence to be a complex function, achieved by the sensing and interfacing of data devices that use some kind of digital intelligence.

The most straightforward example of a digital intelligence system is a microprocessor that can be equipped with communication features. Such devices can only be interfaced to the smart textiles either as unique devices that control the whole textile, or as multiple devices that exchange information from multiple points on the same textile.

The newest configurations addressing intelligence are no longer embedded in conventional microprocessors, but rather in the textile itself. Integration can occur through the use of fibres that have semiconducting properties and can therefore behave as elementary nodes of a large microprocessor.
Another aspect of this category is the use of rapidly developing polymer electronics. Flexible polymers can be part of the smart textile itself as displays or microprocessors.

Distributed versus localised

In terms of application approaches, two broad categories can be seen: distributed or localised, or obviously a combination of both. This describes the architecture of the microprocessors and the embedded intelligence itself. The essential point, however, is that microprocessor architecture should follow the needs of the application for sensing and actuating.

Distributed sensing means that almost each part of the textile is in itself a sensor, with motion sensors as an excellent example. Sensor redundancy is an important asset of such configurations because, with such high numbers of sensors, failure or sensor misplacement can be covered by signals coming from neighbouring sensors.

The advantage of the distributed approach as compared to the smart electrode approach discussed below is the possibility to ultimately combine with distributed chemical sensors: either for perspiration monitoring, such as to monitor stress in the person wearing the garment, or to monitor external influences, such as gas sensors for mining applications or in oil rigs.

Astronaut monitoring

The advantage of having localised smart sensors lies in the simultaneous measurement of several parameters at the same location, as a combination of multiple measurands can produce extremely useful results. The European Space Agency’s long term medical survey (LTMS) programme for the monitoring of astronauts in future manned missions has adopted precisely this approach, and is now in its commercialisation phase for terrestrial application usage, certainly including protective clothing for which a very strong interest has been expressed.

In the future we expect to see a combination of these architectures, such as distributed and centralised intelligence, ultimately on the same textile and therefore offering the best of each approach to the user.

Conclusions

The personal protective textile market is an aggregation of smaller market segments each with its own particularities. These are large business-to-business markets with a high degree of variability and enormous potential to evolve.

Professional and protective market segments might seem at first glance unattractive; however, this is not the case. High replacement rates, in particular in specific markets such as industry, can create interesting opportunities. In this case, smart textiles are expected to increase the productivity, performance and security of professionals.

The nature of the market segment of personal protective wearable systems is that of a high degree of quality and reliability in terms of measurement and interaction – no error can be tolerated when human life is at stake. Taking into account the imperfect interfaces between textiles and the human body, the factors of quality and reliability are expected to delay somewhat the introduction of smart textiles to this segment.

In terms of security there are a number of possible applications; for example, protective clothing for mining, and for use in the metallurgic and electricity industries.

In all such applications, security is paramount. Sensing devices which rapidly detect methane can save hundreds of lives every year in mining; however, since security does not bring additional revenues it is expected at minimal cost.

High renewal rates of personal protective clothing, together with potential increased productivity, could be ideal factors for fast market penetration. As far as we know, no such application has been identified for the moment.

It is expected that disruptive technology will quickly lead to applications through which the combined characteristics of increased productivity, high renewal rates and business-to-business configuration will contribute to rapid market breakthroughs. 

Published: 01st Sep 2012 in OSA Magazine

Author


Dr Georges Kotrotsios, Jean Luprano, Marc Correvon, Gabriela Dudnik and Roland Gentsch


Dr Georges Kotrotsios holds a PhD in Optoelectronics from the Institut National Polytechnique de Grenoble, France, an Executive MBA in Management of Technology from Université de Lausanne, Switzerland, and an Electrical Engineering Degree from the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, Greece. CSEM, the Swiss Centre for Electronics and Microtechnology, was founded in 1984 and is a private research and development centre which specialises in microtechnology, nanotechnology, microelectronics, systems engineering and communications technologies. It offers its customers and industry partners tailor made innovative solutions based on its technological expertise from applied research. In founding start-ups, it actively contributes to developing Switzerland as an industrial location. To date, a total of 36 new enterprises have been launched by CSEM. CSEM has long term and widespread competencies in the development of complex systems and microsystems with human monitoring applications. CSEM has a strong research and development axis in nanotechnologies for bio-applications. It participates in the Heterogeneous Technology Alliance, an alliance federating the Fraunhofer (microelectronics), VTT, CEA-Tech and CSEM, active in Smart System Integration.


Dr Georges Kotrotsios, Jean Luprano, Marc Correvon, Gabriela Dudnik and Roland Gentsch

Website:
http://

Email:
gko@csem.ch

Phone:
+41 32 720 5111

gko@csem.ch
http://
+41 32 720 5111

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