New Research Weaves Omnidirectional Antennas Into Clothing

Antennas are a bit like like underwear. Everybody needs them, but you generally want to conceal them, and when you have troubles with them, it gets embarrassing. Ever since we lost the pull-out and nub antennas of yesteryear on our phones and radios, the antenna has been more and more integrated with the designs of devices, but sometimes it isn’t practical to do so.

Take our clothing, for instance. Generally, getting antennas to play nice with bending and reshaping has led to poor performance (and then there are these things). But work being done at Ohio State University might have taken the next big step towards creating a sweater transmitter.

They used a thin, flexible plastic substrate and etched brass onto it, forming a sort of lightweight antenna thread. They then wove this thread into four areas of a vest: front, back, and both shoulders. A controller about the size of a deck of cards was mounted on a belt. This device monitors the signal of each antenna and switches between them on the fly in order to keep those bars up. In tests, it performed far better than existing whip-style antennas. Most importantly, it allowed reliable communication regardless of the direction the person was facing.

It’s not quite ready for deployment to Banana Republic just yet, but there are plenty of applications. ChiChih Chen, one of the researchers, says: “Our primary goal is to improve communications reliability and the mobility of the soldiers, but the same technology could work for police officers, fire fighters, astronauts – anybody who needs to keep their hands free for important work.” Good signal can mean the difference between a good copy and a bad copy when a building is coming down, and a smaller device footprint means one more magazine or one more tool a soldier or firefighter can carry. I’m thinking this could be useful for espionage and police work, though. No more sticking wires to the undercover guy’s chest.

It isn’t cheap: right now the tech costs around $200 per person to implement, which is probably out of NASA’s budget. The researchers believe they can bring the price down, and eventually integrate the antennas with normal clothes for safety purposes.