fabric (Inked Pixels/Shutterstock.com)

Functional fabrics for emergency response

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology doesn’t have a fashion department.  The school nevertheless hosted a hackathon in July to design clothing for first responders, soldiers and others facing extreme conditions.

The focus of challenge was to employ “functional fabrics”  -- materials with integrated sensors and  internet connectivity that can sense their surroundings, communicate, control temperature and monitor physiological performance -- to solve issues facing soldiers in combat or training, first responders and victims and workers in refugee camps.

More than 20 teams competed for two grand prizes of $15,000, courtesy of MD5, a partnership of the Department of Defense and a network of research universities. The winning technologies were Security Blanket, a relatively low-tech but potentially high-impact anti-microbial blanket designed for refugee camps, and VITAL, a system that tells combat medics which injured personnel are in greatest need of treatment.

The sensors in the clothing used in the VITAL system -- developed by an MIT team that included a former military officer -- constantly monitor the wearer's vital signs and transmit that data to a web platform. The system uses machine learning algorithms to rank the seriousness of injuries and tell medics both the location of injured personnel and the nature of their injuries.

Another team modified augmented-reality headgear to display biometric information collected from wearable sensors worn by soldiers. It connects all medics on the field so they can see when a soldier is injured, alert nearby medics, provide advice during care and monitor everything via video feed.

Other ideas developed in the hackathon included a smart belt that detects radiation exposure in submarines, military gear fitted with radio-frequency identification tags to improve packing efficiency, biometric stickers for detecting symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder and uniforms that incorporate tiny fans.

MD5, which hosted the hackathon with MIT, was founded in 2015 and is based at Fort McNair in Washington, D.C. -- an area originally designated as Military District 5 in the original plans for development of the District of Columbia. The public-private partnership does not invest in technologies or directly support research. Instead, MD5 is focused on training and tools for entrepreneurs, including access to DOD infrastructure and intellectual property.

Another MD5 project, Hacking for Defense, is aimed at developing prototype technologies to deal with emerging security threats.  The program, currently offered at Stanford University, is being expanded to include additional universities.

About the Author

Patrick Marshall is a freelance technology writer for GCN.


  • Records management: Look beyond the NARA mandates

    Pandemic tests electronic records management

    Between the rush enable more virtual collaboration, stalled digitization of archived records and managing records that reside in datasets, records management executives are sorting through new challenges.

  • boy learning at home (Travelpixs/Shutterstock.com)

    Tucson’s community wireless bridges the digital divide

    The city built cell sites at government-owned facilities such as fire departments and libraries that were already connected to Tucson’s existing fiber backbone.

Stay Connected