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Radio Antennas Embedded in Clothing Developed, Licensed

Antennas ready to be sewn into clothing (Ohio State University)

Antennas ready to be sewn into clothing (Ohio State University)

Ohio State University engineers in Columbus have developed a process to sew radio antennas directly into clothing, using plastic film and metallic thread. Their work was published recently in the journal IEEE Antennas and Wireless Propagation Letters (paid subscription required), and licensed to a Virginia company for commercialization.

Research engineering professor Chi-Chih Chen says the idea embedding communications devices in clothing is hardly new. But he and his Ohio State colleagues take elements from previous research and combine them in a new way, and add a computer control device that lets multiple antennas work together in a single piece of clothing.

Fellow faculty member John Volakis compares their approach with the design of cell phones. “You don’t see cell phones with external antennas anymore,” says Volakis, “because the antenna is part of the body of the phone.”

The Ohio State team first had to overcome some obstacles. When antennas make contact with the human skin, the body tends to absorb radio signals and form a short circuit. Also, if an antenna is improperly placed, a person’s body can block it when he or she moves against a wall or other obstacles.

Their system overcomes these problems by surrounding the body with several antennas that work together to transmit or receive a signal, no matter the direction a person is facing. Also, a credit card-sized control device worn separately but connected to the antennas, senses body movement and position, and switches between the antennas to activate the one with the best performance.

A prototype system built by the team uses brass antenna threads etched on FR-4, a common, light, flexible, and commercially-available plastic film. Chen estimates that the antenna systems, as demonstrated in the prototype, would cost $200 per person to implement, but mass production should bring that cost.

In lab tests, the Ohio State researchers found the antenna system provided significantly greater signal strength — about four times the range of the standard military “whip” antenna. The antenna system also worked in all directions, even inside the hallways of their lab building, where doors and windows would normally interfere with the signal.

Applied EM, an antenna design company in Hampton, Virginia has licensed and is commercializing the technology. The company has experience developing antenna systems for military applications, which is considered a prime market for the Ohio State work.

Read more: GPS-Linked Training Shirt Gives Data for Runners

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