BOSTON — Defense Secretary Ash Carter on Friday will announce a new $317 million initiative to develop high-tech fibers and textiles that could eventually store battery power, advanced computer circuitry and health sensors in troops' clothing.
The Defense Department will help fund a consortium led by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to research and manufacture advanced materials with broad applications for national defense, Pentagon officials said.
"Revolutionary fibers and textiles have enormous potential for our defense mission," Carter planned to say at an event at MIT Friday, according to a copy of his prepared remarks provided by defense officials.
"For example, lightweight sensors woven into the nylon of parachutes will be able to catch small tears that otherwise would expand in midair, risking paratroopers lives," Carter said.
"The reality is that, as I stand here today, we don't know all the advances this new technology will make possible. That's the remarkable thing about innovation – and it's another reason why America and America's military must get there first."
Known as the Advanced Functional Fabrics of America Alliance, the consortium will focus on integrating flexible fibers and yarns with integrated circuits, LEDs, solar cells and other capabilities to create fabrics that can see, hear, sense, communicate, store energy, monitor health and change color, defense officials said.
For the military, that technology could lead to uniforms for war fighters that regulate temperature, power equipment or detect and warn about environmental hazards like chemical or radioactive elements.
The governors of Massachusetts and Pennsylvania and a host of other public officials were expected attend the event at MIT Friday.
The consortium will be managed by the U.S. Army Contracting Command – New Jersey Emerging Technologies Contracting Center and combines about $75 million in Pentagon funds with an additional $250 million from the private sector and local governments.
The companies involved in the research effort include Nike, New Balance, Bose, Intel, DuPont, Buhler Quality Yarns, and an array of energy and material technology firms.
The deal follows a similar one Carter announced in September that involved $165 million for a partnership called the Manufacturing Innovation Institute for Flexible Hybrid Electronics, which also involves dozens of universities, companies and not-for-profit groups. That consortium is led by the FlexTech Alliance, an industry association.
Carter's announcement at MIT caps a two-day trip the secretary took to technology hubs in Austin, Texas and Boston.
On Thursday, Carter visited research labs at the University of Texas, one focused on robotics and another on data visualization. In Austin, Carter also visited the "Capital Factory," a technology incubator and shared work space in downtown Austin.
In Boston on Friday, Carter planned to visit MIT to officially announce the new high-tech fabrics consortium. He also plans to visit Harvard.
Carter has prioritized technology and innovation initiatives since taking over the Pentagon's top job last year. He's says he's looking for new ways for the Defense Department to bring in top talent that might not typically be drawn to traditional national security jobs.
Yet on Thursday Carter also offered some assurances to the Defense Department's traditional big defense contractors, saying they will continue to play a vital and innovative role in supporting the Pentagon and its $600 billion annual budgets.
"This isn't a trade off one for the other. I am trying to broaden the base of those who serve the national defense and national security and that includes both people and technology," Carter told reporters on Thursday.
"Our defense companies are very innovative. If I interest someone in the problems of national defense, they may end up working for one of those companies. If there is a successful company that works on defense, they may buy it or at least its technology
Carter's outreach to the tech sector "is another avenue for us to get technology and also for us to get companies that already work with us to continue to innovate," he said.
Andrew Tilghman is the executive editor for Military Times. He is a former Military Times Pentagon reporter and served as a Middle East correspondent for the Stars and Stripes. Before covering the military, he worked as a reporter for the Houston Chronicle in Texas, the Albany Times Union in New York and The Associated Press in Milwaukee.