Smart Textiles: Mighty oaks from little acorns grow

The global market for the application of smart fabrics and intelligent textiles is rapidly growing. In fact, it is expected to reach around US$ 2 billion by 2018, according to Statista, a leading online statistics portal.  This growth is being driven by mega-trends such as an ageing population and increasing rates of obesity, diabetes and other related health conditions.

Footfalls & Heartbeats (UK) Limited is one of the companies helping to drive growth. The team has developed a revolutionary and proprietary process for manufacturing smart fabric, which uses nano-scale interactions within the textile to make the fabric itself the sensor.

How Footfalls & Heartbeats develop smart textiles

Footfalls & Heartbeats’ technology combines mathematically determined textile structures using electrically conductive yarn to form a repeatable and sensitive sensor network.  Contact resistance is a basic rule of all electronics – where if you push two things together, the harder you push, the lower the resistance, as you get more and more contact between the two points.  Footfalls & Heartbeats has worked out a way to control the contact resistance in fabric. 

The importance of knitting

When the yarn is knitted together it forms different contact areas, which in turn control the contact resistance.  Stitching essentially is a series of loops, by which tension is increased or decreased which alters the number of contact points in the fabric.  The more specific types of stitches that are put in will control the number of resulting contact areas in the fabric. 

Footfalls & Heartbeats’ technology uses the three-dimensional complexity of a textile structure, including interactions of fibres within the yarn itself, to control the electrical resistance characteristics of the sensor structure. 

The resulting textile structures are capable of registering external environmental stimuli in the form of electrical signals. These signals can be filtered, amplified and analysed in real-time to produce multiple data sets, such as tensile or compressive force detection.  This heralds the emergence of the next generation of smart textiles where sensor functionality is integrated into the fabric structure to allow real-time monitoring whilst also ensuring comfort, personal privacy, wearability and durability.

Smart textiles – recognising the huge potential

Footfalls & Heartbeats has established a research partnership with the Applied Optics Group (AOP), at The University of Nottingham. The partnership is exploring further functionality of the smart fabric, including the ability to track bio-electrical outputs, such as heart rate.

The revolutionary technology has the potential to make a huge impact on helping monitor the success of healthcare interventions. This includes use in advanced wound care and compression garment systems, or remote monitoring of health and physiological symptoms for those in high risk environments, such as first responders and defence personnel.

In the future, Footfalls & Heartbeats intends for the textile to be sufficiently sensitive to detect the bioelectrical signals of active and passive skeletal muscles. This would have the potential to allow ambulatory ECG and EMG. Other future product development includes the ability to measure blood oxygen saturation levels and blood flow rates. Applications may potentially include injury rehabilitation, neurological trauma reconditioning, real-time stress testing or a human interface for robotics.

Smart textiles transform healthcare and other industries

The Footfalls & Heartbeats team is showing that mighty oaks, in this case, pioneering applications in healthcare, do grow from the tiny nano-interactions (acorns) in their smart fabric manufacturing process. 

Footfalls & Heartbeats’ current IP portfolio has led to commercial collaborations with several tier 1 international organisations where the integration of this technology is being tested in both consumer and healthcare applications. 

Beyond health applications, Footfalls & Heartbeats’ technology also has the potential to measure the mechanical stress in composite structures such as satellites, aircraft wings, wind turbine blades, yacht hulls and foils and high performance car chassis.

Footfalls & Heartbeats is actively seeking commercial partnerships in its market application areas of interest - including but not exclusive to health, sports, rehabilitation, aged care, aerospace and automobile industries.