Textile antenna turns fiction into fact
6 October 2009
'Beam me up Scotty!' is one of the most famous orders in movie history. With a simple touch on his shirt insignia, the captain of the Starship Enterprise could speak to his crew. Now, thanks to the efforts of a Finnish company supported by ESA, yet another device used in science fiction is about to enter our lives.
What has made it possible to use clothing for communication is a recent invention called the flexible antenna. This device can be made to look like a simple patch that is sewn into a sleeve, jacket or trouser leg. Leading the design effort is the Finnish Patria Aviation Oy company, which has been working within the ESA ‘Textile Antennas’ project.
The company has built into its cloth an antenna that can communicate through the Iridium and GPS satellite systems. The Iridium satellites allow two-way voice and data communication, while GPS provides the position of the antenna wearer. Iridium can also relay the position of the user to operational centres.
However, choosing the most suitable materials and designing the space age style of clothing has not been easy. Many things had to be considered and then tested. How safe and effective was the electrical device? How well would it operate when the wearer was moving around or bending? Could it be washed, and at what temperature? How must it be stitched? Could it be ironed?
Careful testing has shown that such an antenna really does work. We won’t be beaming up to a starship anytime soon, but it may not be too long before firefighters and other emergency staff are using their flexible friend to communicate.