Talk to your shirt or blanket with smart sensors

What if your shirt or trouser can detect moisture in the air and gauge the outside temperature or your new-born baby’s diaper can alert you that it is time for you to change it?

To make these thoughts a reality, scientists have developed a new technology called SansEC — short for “without electrical connection”.

It’s a sensor that functions using electromagnetic vibrations in the air. For the sensor itself, there is no need to plug it in or use batteries.

Susan Bernard, owner of Textile Technologies, and NASA team developed SansEC sensors which have the ability to detect a range of conditions, such as moisture.

With various embroidery techniques and a multitude of fabrics, the sensors can be virtually added to existing materials, uniforms or weaved directly, creating a highly resonant sensor at a low cost with no additional weight, NASA said.

Bernard and her small company in Perrysburg, Ohio, are incorporating SansEC sensors into textile products — things made of cloth and paper.

Textile Instruments has already made a prototype blanket.

“We’re able to detect moisture, temperature and movement,” Bernard said, “and we recently know how to interrogate the sensor to read heart rate. We’re still very much in the R&D on the heart rate.”

“The challenge is to find uses for the sensors, creating viable products we will use daily as consumers. Our recent communications with venture capital firms indicate they are clamouring for real prototypes. There is a demand for hardware and we have a viable path to produce them,” Bernard added.

Originally developed by NASA Langley researcher Stanley Woodard, SansEC can simultaneously measure different physical phenomena? Temperature and fluid level, for example? and functions even when badly damaged.

A remote antenna “interrogates” the sensor and collects the measurements. Woodard initially imagined using the sensor on space systems such as inflatable habitats or the Mars airplane.

“It’s a very simple thing – and it’s so simple, it’s easy to miss the power of it,” said Ken Dudley, researcher at NASA’s Langley Research Center who is involved with SansEC.

Of Bernard, he said: “She saw the potential of this immediately.”

These sensors can be used to test for water levels, iron or salinity, blockages, leaks or pipe integrity.

These can also be placed in the floors to provide motion detection and monitor ice and snow accumulation or be used for safety and security.

Sensors can also detect spoiled milk and meats.

‘Our next step is to work on making advancements in the technology to bring it closer to the consumer’s reach,” said Robert Donley, Chief Technology Officer at Textile Instruments.

“We see an exciting passive wireless vital signs detection system on the horizon with applications in the healthcare, sportswear, and military markets,” he noted.