Apple to help US military build flexible hybrid electronics

What lessons will Apple bring to future product design?

Look smart!

Intelligence everywhere is the mantra of our increasingly connected planet and nowhere is this more apparent than in news Apple and others will help the US military develop wearable technologies.

The Pentagon today announced plans to work with Apple, Boeing, Harvard and 160 others within the newly announced Flexible Hybrid Electronic Institute. The aim is to use high-end printing technologies to “create stretchable electronics that could be embedded with sensors and worn by soldiers, a defense official said,” as reported by Reuters.

These “stretchable electronics” will be worn by humans or wrapped around military assets to monitor structural integrity. (Think smart exercise kit for battlefields).

"I've been pushing the Pentagon to think outside our five-sided box and invest in innovation here in Silicon Valley and in tech communities across the country," Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said. Carter is also exploring how much autonomy military drones and robots should have in future.

Connected everything

“Flexible hybrid electronics manufacturing describes the innovative production of electronics and sensors packaging through new techniques in electronic device handling and high precision printing on flexible, stretchable substrates. The potential array of products range from wearable devices to improved medical health monitoring technologies, and will certainly increase the variety and capability of sensors that already interconnect the world. The technologies promise dual use applications in both the consumer economy and the development of military solutions for the warfighter,” the US Department of Defense said in a press release.

By taking its part in the consortium, Apple puts itself at the cutting edge of 3D printing, wearables/sensor technology and artificial intelligence. Apple has a lot to share, not least its advanced research (both in-house and acquired across recent years) into wearable sensor technologies. How might these lessons inform Apple’s designs for a smarter planet? (Or for a smart car?)

Mixed media 3D printing

3D printing is improving. Huge research in materials process technology and hardware development mean the products we can print with these machines are diversifiying and print speeds increasing. What’s missing is the capacity to print complex microelectronics using different materials – even the 3D printer in the ISS is capable only of printing small spare parts. We all know 3D printing will comprise part of the future of retail, but until we can print an iPhone – or, indeed, a sensor-laden battle suit – the technology won’t come into its own.

Smart textiles

What the DoD is describing here is nothing less than the evolution of smart textiles. That the department has specified use of printing technologies says it wants to be able to create these textiles quickly, easily and relatively cheaply. While the initial concept seems focused on health and structural integrity sensors, once a means by which smart materials can be mass produced is achieved, then it’s only a question of time until the capabilities improve. Sci-fi materials capable of responding to extrinsic change, such as becoming bullet proof in battle but soft and light as silk for long marches suddenly seem possible.

Sensors and intelligence

Apple has invested heavily in sensor technologies, and its particular focus on health means it has a lot to bring (and much to learn) from this alliance. Of course, sensor data’s inherent value sits inside the insights it provides. The need for such insights will inevitably drive Apple to get involved in analytics and artificial intelligence. The company is already working with IBM on this. How else should you see its Proactive technologies?

I’m interested in how these projects will inform Apple’s product development plans across the next decade.

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Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

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