Smart fabric solutions

European researchers are using smart fabrics to help prevent repetitive strain injury and keep emergency workers safe in disaster zones

Two European research streams are investigating new applications for smart fabrics, including helping prevent repetitive strain injury (RSI) and keeping emergency workers safe in disaster zones.

The Context project developed a vest to tackle RSI, a serious work safety issue which can lead to debilitating injury. To do so, researchers used sophisticated sensors to measure muscle contraction as a predictor for long-term, low-key stress, the leading risk factor for RSI.

One problem the team had to address was that electromyography, or electrical activity in the muscle, is much subtler than electrocardiography, which measures the heart, and even rustle of clothing can drown out the signal.

The team is currently making improvements to the reliability of its RSI vest, which can warn wearers to take a recuperative break and prevent long-term problems.

The second project, Proetex, produced garments for firefighters, paramedics and rescue workers that can monitor people’s health, identify their location and even detect dangerous chemicals in the atmosphere.

Rescue workers are often laden with equipment, such as oxygen tanks and medical equipment, so any additional gear they use must be as light as possible and low power consuming. The complete Proetex package consists of a raft of sensors incorporated into different elements of the overall system: vest, jacket, shoes and a belt for victims.

The inner garment includes sensors that provide continuous monitoring of life-signs like breathing, heart rate and body temperature. The outer jacket detects external threats like high temperatures and toxic chemicals. The first warns rescue command of local conditions, while the second can alert the rescue worker to dangerous gases.

The jacket incorporates accelerometers to track the wearer’s motion and position and GPS to track location. Integrated light and sound alerts can be activated to make finding a lost or injured fire fighter easier. The jacket also has GPS and a textile antenna, a small box of electronic controls manages all the data from various sensors, and textile batteries are included to provide a light power source.

The firefighter boots developed by Proetex include a pocket for a gas sensor, but researchers hope that later models will include batteries, more sensors and communication devices.