Space, textile and information technologies: a unique combination of expertise for the development of a new generation of communicating bio-medical clothes

Genova 28 October 2002The medical sector is always looking for new and advanced solutions to increase the quality of life and allow for cost-effective prevention and treatment of diseases. A growing interest for co-operation between the medical, Information and Communication Technology (ITC) as well as textile communities has been noticed around Europe and the world, confirmed by a workshop recently organised by the European Commission IST Programme. In fact, ITC-advanced applications developed within the framework of the European Commission Research Programmes have shown that electronic devices can be developed smaller and smaller in order to be wearable, opening new perspectives for example in body parameter monitoring for health enhancement and management of acute diseases. In parallel, textile engineering and technology has demonstrated that sensors and actuators can be integrated into the fabric texture, making them disappear in the cloth as recently presented at the AVANTEX Fair in Frankfurt.


In this framework, last July about 100 companies met in Lille, France, to discuss the development of new high tech textile applications based on space technology. The event organised within the framework of the Technology Transfer Programme of the European Space Agency (ESA) in co-operation with the Italian company D'Appolonia was a unique opportunity for space and textile people to brainstorm all together on the development of new products, based on past successes like, for example, the Mamagoose pyjama from the Belgian company Verhaert deriving from the results achieved in ESA space physiology programmes.

In Lille, D'Appolonia co-ordinated a brainstorming session on "Intelligent Textiles for Medical Applications", where key players in ITC and wearable technology like Infineon and Philips had the chance to discuss with clothing designers, textile research centres and universities, yarn and fabric manufacturers as well as space materials and telemedicine specialists like Medes in France.

As a result of the brainstorming, several promising ideas have been identified and discussed like the application of Shape Memory Alloy (SMA) fibres for signal acquisition and smart actuation as well as superelastic behaviour to allow intimate contact between the sensor and the skin. The potential for the space know-how on SMA has been presented by Grado Zero Espace last month, in a conference in Brussels organised jointly by the European Commission DG Enterpise and Euratex, the European Textile and Clothing Organisation.

The metallic fibres can be used for data transfer as well as for the development of a new generation of electronic textile components. The same concept applies to smart implants where for example SMA textile stents can monitor actively the blood flow and communicate to the garment possible restenosis - recurrent artery blockages after surgical treatment - or any pressure alteration.

The same technology can play a role in thermal physiology, increasing or decreasing the insulation of the garment. This is in fact one of the parameters to be considered during the management of an heart attack or stroke to reduce the amount of damage, as recently highlighted by the United States Food and Drug Administration. In the area of active thermal management, the European Space Agency Technology Transfer Programme has indeed success. For example, the system used in Astronaut suits has been used for fashion garments and technical suits, as presented in Lille in occasion of the launch of the new cooled overalls for McLaren-Hugo Boss F1 mechanics by D'Appolonia and Grado Zero Espace.

Space technology can play a role also when coming to transfer this data, guaranteeing ubiquitous management of diseases. It happens in fact that most of the people which suffer for example from heart diseases are those who have a very active and stressing working life with frequent travelling and also those people who are above 60's and enjoy their life in leisure travelling, spending for example some weeks cruising in the Mediterranean or Caribbean sea. In these cases, traditional wireless communications have some limitations in signal coverage and the possibility for the bio-medical cloth to be connected to an internal Local Area Network in the aircraft or vessel and then communicating outside through a satellite gate could be another clever application of space technology, giving added value to the development of this new product-service concept.

Furthermore, the new services associated to Galileo launch can enlarge the applicability range of this clothes and support in disease management. Of course, energy is a relevant constraint for wearable systems and also here space can play a relevant role as lightweight and long life batteries or energy storage systems are instrumental to the success of many space tasks. The possibility to re-design these technologies using textile technology is of course a challenge but not so far from application, as for example piezo-batteries which can store the energy released during body movements.

The July workshop in Lille confirmed that the integration of space, ITC, and textile expertise within the medical domain opens a potential huge market for the so-called "bio-medical clothes". D'Appolonia is receiving several expressions of interest as a follow-up of the event including all the stakeholders in the supply chain, from big players to a large number of Small and Medium Sized Enterprises (SMEs). This demonstrates that a traditional sector like textile, dominated by a majority of low-tech SMEs, can be combined with more high-tech sectors like space and ITC to favour European industry competitiveness through the creation of a novel family of product-service concepts to solve relevant societal needs.

In view of this growing interest, this new area has been included in the Space2tex Textile Contest that D'Appolonia has launched with the support of the European Space Agency. The development of the concepts with the support of the European Space Agency and the perspectives associated to the next Sixth Framework Programme for research of the European Commission represent indeed a unique opportunity to provide a multi-disciplinary approach to address the associated research challenges in nanotechnology, multifunctional materials, as well as ITC technologies.

For further information, you can contact Stefano Carosio from D'Appolonia SpA. The VMW editorial team kindly pays acknowledgements to Mr. Stefano Carosio from D'Appolonia SpA for contributing this article to the Virtual Medical Worlds Magazine. More news on the subject of bio-medical clothing is available in the VMW August 2002 article, written by Dr. Andreas Lymberis and Dr. Silas Olsson from the European Commission, Smart biomedical clothes promising way to keep the European citizen healthy.

Stefano Carosio

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