Future Soldiers will have flexible electronics everywhere

By on Friday, February 22nd, 2013

More than 10 years ago, U.S. Army researchers saw potential in flexible displays. With nothing in the marketplace, the Army decided to change that by partnering with industry and academia to create the Flexible Display Center at Arizona State University.

The Army’s goal was to get this amazing technology into the hands of Soldiers. The Army established a research center with industry and universities in 2004. Fast forward nine years. Teams of researchers have scored significant breakthroughs and racked up more than 50 patents. The original goal of the program may soon be met.

“We were starting to develop a lot of new kinds of electronic gizmos to help Soldiers,” said Nick Colaneri, center director. “The problem was, they all needed displays. Flat displays today are made out of glass. Glass is heavy and it breaks. So, we’re all about getting the glass out of displays.”

Researchers say the most important result was figuring out how to put conventional electronics onto plastic using existing electronics manufacturing equipment. This manufacturing breakthrough opened a world of possibilities.

“The process allows us to glue plastic onto a carrier in a standard manufacturing fabrication facility and then de-bond it — kind of like a Post-it note. Literally the plastic peels off from the carrier,” said Eric Forsythe, Ph.D., Army Research Laboratory, or ARL, team leader and flexible electronics deputy project manager. “This allows us to leverage traditional manufacturing paradigms for flexible displays, which then reduces overall entry costs to enable displays while enabling the capability to fabricate electronics on plastic. And that’s really the key for large-scale manufacturing of displays.”

“We’re going to unburden Soldiers by getting rid of a lot of the batteries that have to be carried today,” Colaneri said. “The nearest-term application we’ve been talking about is a display on the Soldier’s sleeve.”

Imagine what a Soldier could learn by glancing down at his or her sleeve such as current mission requirements or any battlefield command. That’s what Army researchers are thinking about for the Soldier of the future.

“The Soldier is going to have a display that is essentially embedded on his or her uniform that will provide information when it is needed,” said David Morton, Ph.D., ARL program manager for flexible displays. “The system will determine what information is needed, so as not to overload the Soldier with additional information. If a Soldier needs friend or foe information, or instructions on what to do, it will be provided instantly.”

Morton said the Soldier of the future will have more reliable technology.

“The display that’s on the Soldier will not break,” he said. “It will use very low power, and it’s not going to wear out. More importantly, from a systems standpoint, it’s made in a commercial environment. It didn’t cost too much to insert, which means we can give it to all Soldiers.”

The Army understands the advantages of flexible displays, Morton said.

“It’s all about getting networked information down to the individual Soldier,” Colaneri said. “Today you may have a squad leader with access to the network, any of the information that’s coming from the headquarters, or the network of sensors around the battlespace. But, the individual Soldier relies on hand signals or shouts in terms of communication. This will give a great deal of situational awareness, just simple stuff — ‘Where am I? Where are the bad guys? Which way is out? What other assets are available to help out in critical situations?'”

For the first few years, funding for the center came from the ARL. Industry partners are heavily invested, too. The Flexible Display Center in Tempe, Ariz., has more than 40 engineers and technicians. They collaborate with several professors at ASU, Princeton University and the University of Texas at Dallas. Many graduate students are also involved in the project.

“Most importantly, we have 30 dues-paying industrial companies who have teams of researchers working together with us on various projects, whether it’s developing new materials, new manufacturing equipment for making the parts, or making the displays. Once we’ve worked all the bugs out and figured out how it’s going to get made, we are eventually going to get it into the hands of the Soldiers,” Colaneri said.

This won’t be the Army’s only use of this technology. Morton said military vehicles of the future will have plastic displays.

“They will be essentially a sheet of plastic that is, with the electronics — 1/16th of an inch thick and will weigh almost nothing,” Morton said. “When a vehicle is in combat and happens to get hit, you won’t have to worry about things flying off and killing people.”

A significant portion of the volume and weight of things inside a military vehicle is due to making them rugged. A 10-pound monitor may need 10 pounds of metal to bolt it down. However, a sheet of plastic attached with Velcro poses a much lighter and minimal risk.

Years of research in this area has opened the Army’s eyes to many potential applications for flexible electronics on plastic.

“It turns out there’s actually more Army-relevant applications for flexible electronics than flexible displays,” Morton said.

Morton and the team work closely with the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, which supports Army Explosive Ordnance Disposal. Imagine an EOD Soldier in the field with a lightweight, flexible X-ray sensor. That’s just one of many potential uses for flexible electronics on plastic.

“We’re going to be able to apply electronics everywhere,” Morton said. “Think of plastic patches on the outside of tanks that are sensors. The Soldier may have sensors on his or her back built onto the uniform for friend or foe identification. There will be sensors built into the helmet, maybe acoustic, could be optical. The communications antenna may be built into the clothing. If you can put electronics on lightweight, flexible plastic or build it into the fabric, essentially you can put it everywhere.”

Morton constantly updates Army planners on research progression.

“We’re driving the technology forward. We know what’s coming and we have an estimate of when it’s going to arrive,” Morton said. “We’re not only driving technology, we’re providing critical inputs for the development of our requirements road maps. We’re driving the customers by saying, ‘This is what you can plan for and insert.'”

“You see it all around you, most visibly in the multi-touch phones,” Colaneri said. “It’s being enabled by a whole host of electronic technologies. In the units you’re using the display is still a piece of glass. It’s small, flat, hard and rigid. As we move toward the displays that can be unfolded or unwrapped or can be anywhere — on your sleeve or pants leg, I think we’re going to see an evolution to information everywhere — connectivity between electronic systems that are throughout our lives, ultimately empowering and unburdening us in our daily lives as consumers.”

Forsythe is also optimistic about the Army’s flexible display and electronics research program. Because of the partnership, some companies are bringing flexible displays to the marketplace as early as next month. Korean consumer electronics maker LG, a member of the Flexible Display Center research team, announced its intent to “revolutionize the e-book market.” LG intends to market its first product in Europe in May, according to a company press release.

“It’s been highly successful both in how research can be done in certain applications. It’s certainly been successful in terms of accelerating technology for the Soldier, which ultimately is our goal, to get technology to benefit the Soldier,” Forsythe said.

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