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Major support for smart textile R&D announced

Smart textile technology could be poised to take a giant step forward with a new program.

Features | June 27, 2022 | By: Janet Preus

Supercapacitor yarns integrated in a fabric for powering LEDs. North Carolina State University researchers have found a way to prevent electrical malfunctions in yarns designed to store electrical energy. Photo: Nanfei He.

Government contracts, historically, have been a major source of funding for research and development in the advanced textiles world. An example of this significant commitment was announced recently with a new program through The Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA). It has introduced its Smart Electrically Powered and Networked Textile Systems (SMART ePANTS) initiative to potential proposers, seeking to develop sophisticated new smart systems in wearables, making a garment that can “see, hear and locate.” The goal is for these systems to be incorporated into garment components, especially fibers, yarns and fabric. 

What’s particularly significant for the smart textile industry is the size and scope of an IARPA program. A project of the U.S. Office of the Director of National Intelligence, IARPA invests in high-risk, high-payoff research programs to address some of the most difficult challenges of the agencies and disciplines in the Intelligence Community (IC). 

A new approach

“It’s the holistic approach that’s going to get us to a product,” says Dawson Cagle, Ph.D., SMART e-PANTS program manager for IARPA. “People have not invited proposals to bring everything together, so that’s what we’re trying to do at IARPA.”

 “I’m excited about the program because I think we have an opportunity to usher in the next generation of the Internet of Things,” Cagle says. “Yes, I am thinking of textiles. We’ve moved computers into our smart phones. This is the chance to move computers into our clothing.”

E-textiles and smart clothing are not altogether new, but larger success for these technologies has been stalled. “Most people who work on this, focus on the sensor. But how do you make a camera or audio device?” he asks. “The biggest part is not the sensor, it is the power, the switches to turn it on and off. We are interested in taking, ‘see it, hear it, locate it’ functionality and making it washable.”

This is a large order, but it is the kind of problem that suits IARPA. “IARPA exists for the purpose of creating paradigm-shifting technologies,” he says. “Somebody needs to stand up and issue a challenge and to back it up. I think that IARPA is hoping to be that change institution.”

Although it will be developed first for the intelligence community, he expects it to see much wider market acceptance. “I absolutely believe that this is going to be picked up quickly by commercial markets—first in medical and probably in sports performance—and we encourage this,” he says. 

A new dynamic

As the program manager, Cagle chose MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory as the program’s Testing and Evaluation Partner. Lincoln Laboratory has a history and close association with the Advanced Functional Fabrics of America (AFFOA) and chose to bring AFFOA in as a collaborator in this role. As such, neither entity can compete for the proposals. This has created a new dynamic for developing advanced textile technologies and a new role for AFFOA. 

“Typically, AFFOA would be on a team to develop a proposal,” Sasha Stolyarov, Ph.D., AFFOA CEO says. “We decided to go with it because Lincoln Lab’s capability in fiber technologies and ours is so compatible, developed together. We felt we had something to offer to all proposers.”

As the proposed projects are charged with creating textiles that “listen, see, and locate where they are—all integrated in a wearable textile,” says Stolyarov, AFFOA’S existing expertise could be a crucial component in the process. 

Metrics and baselines

Livia Racz, Ph.D., Leader, Advanced Materials and Microsystems Group in the advanced technology division at Lincoln Laboratory says, “Because we work so closely with AFFOA, we talked about the right way for AFFOA to be involved.” 

The collaborators both understand the challenges that have faced “people trying to imbed electrical functionality or some other functionality in textiles,” Racz says. “They soon realized they were stuck with technology that was optimized for something else—they’re rigid, too big, and don’t work in textiles.” 

To get past this, “Somebody needed to invest big,” she says. “We’re all doing these engineered workarounds. Long-term R & D investment is difficult to do for an entity that wants a product.” 

But IARPA works differently. “Their job is to fund big, high-risk ideas with 50, 60, 70-year impact. We all think that this is the kind of field that could have that kind of impact long-term.”

“Somebody needs to spend a lot of time and money on it without worrying about the profit,” Cagle explains. “That’s what we’re prepared to do. We are focused on performance and dreaming big.”

The team approach

The Test and Evaluation Team is charged with measuring project success, which, Racz says, must be quantitative in order to make evaluation of projects impartial. They will also provide baseline designs, defining what has already been accomplished, which proposals will have to go beyond. 

“The government does not want to pay twice for the technology we have already developed, so we are making existing technologies [in a generic way] available to anybody working on the program,” Racz says. 

“We’d like to engage people and companies that haven’t already been working in this field,” Racz adds. “They may have an idea for one part of it, but that’s all they have. IARPA would like to see these people work together.” 

In order to maintain impartiality, the Test and Evaluation Team cannot help build performer teams, but Racz hopes that participants can introduce themselves at an upcoming program workshop they are running to introduce their capabilities. “In fact, proposers will have to form teams,” she says. “There really isn’t a single entity that has all the pieces that they need to write a good proposal.” 

The timeline

The BAA [Broad Agency Announcement] will likely be published in early July, Cagle says. Also in July, IARPA will work with AFFOA and Lincoln Laboratory on an open house to showcase the technologies available to selected performers. Anybody, he notes, is welcome to attend. Proposals will be due in September, and people will be under contract by early next year. 

The first 18 months of the program will be the “proof of concept” or “build it” phase, where the teams demonstrate the viability of the assembled components with which they intend to work. A 12-month “wear it” phase follows, when all the components for the smart textile will be woven, knit or otherwise incorporated into a garment. At this point, the garment will be tested for comfort and durability, and to determine how well the electronics function. The final 12 months are the “wash it” phase. 

“Washing electronics has never been done as an entire unit,” Cagle says. “This would be something new. We want to be sure it maintains functionalities that resemble a regular garment.”

To learn more

The IARPA website offers a summary, a first draft of the call for proposals and a video explaining the program. Cagle says they do not have a limit on the number of teams that will be funded, and unlike most U.S. government funding agencies, “We are happy to fund projects internationally,” he says. “We are looking for the best technology in the world.”

Janet Preus is senior editor of Advanced Textiles Source. She can be reached at

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