Written by: Tom Rieland
Date: August 24, 2011

Have you seen this out of Ohio State?  To make communications devices more reliable, researchers are finding ways to incorporate radio antennas directly into clothing, using plastic film and metallic thread.  Wow.

Chi-Chih Chen

“Our primary goal is to improve communications reliability and the mobility of the soldiers,” said Chi-Chih Chen, a research associate professor of electrical and computer engineering at Ohio State. “But the same technology could work for police officers, fire fighters, astronauts – anybody who needs to keep their hands free for important work.”

For typical foot soldiers, mobility and communications are often at odds. An antenna can be a large and unwieldy addition to an already heavy load.

The idea of embedding communications devices in clothing to address this problem is not new, Chen explained. The Ohio State system takes elements from previous research and combines them in a new way, with the addition of a unique computer control device that lets multiple antennas work together in a single piece of clothing.

The result is a communications system that can send and receive signals in all directions, even through walls and inside a building, without a need for the wearer to carry an external antenna.

John Volakis, the Roy & Lois Chope Chair Professor and Director of the ElectroScience Laboratory at Ohio State, found a common analogy for the new design.

“In a way, we’re doing what’s already been done on a cell phone. You don’t see cell phones with external antennas anymore, because the antenna is part of the body of the phone,” Volakis said.

When antennas make contact with the human skin, however, the body tends to absorb radio signals and form a short circuit – a fact driven home by the recent difficulties with the antenna placement on the iPhone 4. 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.

The Ohio State system overcomes these problems by surrounding the body with several antennas that work together to transmit or receive a signal, no matter which way a person is facing. An integrated computer control device senses body movement and switches between the antennas to activate the one with the best performance given the body’s position.

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The idea of embedding communications devices in clothing to address this problem is not new. The Ohio State system takes elements from previous research and combines them in a new way, with the addition of a unique computer control device that lets multiple antennas work together in a single piece of clothing.


The engineers created a prototype antenna by etching thin layers of brass on a commercially available plastic film, called FR-4. The film is light and flexible, and can be sewn onto fabric.

They attached it into a vest at four locations –chest, back, and both shoulders. The computer controller – a metal box a little smaller than a credit card and an inch thick – was worn on a belt.

In laboratory tests, the experimental antenna system provided significantly greater signal strength compared to a conventional military “whip” antenna, enabling a range of communications four times larger.

Perhaps most importantly, the new antenna system worked in all directions, even as researchers tested it inside the hallways of the ElectroScience Lab, where doors and windows would normally interfere with the signal.

Key to the technology was the engineers’ development of network communications coding to coordinate the signals among the antennas. Doctoral student Gil-Young Lee developed a computer module to make the antenna control automatic. Lee, Chen, and Volakis co-authored the IEEE paper with Dimitrios Psychoudakis, senior research associate at the ElectroScience Lab.

They are partnering with an antenna design company, Applied EM of Hampton, VA, to commercialize the research, which was funded by a Small Business Innovation Research grant.

Chen currently estimates that the antenna systems, as demonstrated in the prototype, would cost $200 per person to implement, but mass production would bring that cost significantly down.

In the meantime, the engineers are working on printing antennas directly onto clothing, and embroidering antennas into clothing with metallic threads. A typical home sewing machine is now part of their laboratory equipment, and early tests have shown that the swirly designs they’ve embroidered into fabrics such as cotton – and even taffeta – can work as functional antennas.

That’s why Volakis envisions the technology to be adaptable for the general public. The elderly or disabled could wear clothing that would let them communicate in case of emergency, without the stigma they might feel in wearing a more visible assistive device.

“Imagine a vest or shirt, or even a fancy ball gown made with this technology,” he said, scrunching a sample of embroidered taffeta in his hand. “The antennas would be inconspicuous, and even attractive. People would want to wear them.”


  • tigersgrowl

    I never knew about that. Had I known, I would have listened to local radio because my data is capped within the first week due to all the 3G radio I listen to. This will be a great help however, I use the Kyrocera Event (don’t laugh, it was only $20 and I got a mortgage) with the Virgin Mobile service using the Sprint network. I contacted Virgin just now, we’ll have to see if they give me the run around as expected with most phone companies or not. If they do, I won’t give up there, I will consult the blogs and forums. If there is a way, I will find it.

    • Jessie

      @tigersgrowl, I also have Virgin Mobile and they use the Sprint network. I will call them also, but I would really appreciate if you post your updates.

  • Yoga Bear

    “I want my FM Radio! Unlock the FM chip in all smartphones you sell so I can get important emergency information when data networks are unavailable and reduce the amount of data I use each month.

    Thank you. I have a HTC one m7 I have looked and the phone has a FM chip and I have Verizon I have called there tech support and they told me all I need to do is find a radio app, you can’t find one that will work without the net, theses company’s just lies to get you off the phone, so I called HTC by the way Verizon told me not to do that, so me being one not to do what I’m told lol I called any ways, HTC told me that they will be updating to lollipop in a few months and then they’re going to come out with the update that send you a FM radio to your phone that they have been working on it for several months without any support from Verizon Wireless so they’ve taken it on their self to go ahead and make a program to turn on the FM chip so that it will work so that we can have free FM radio on our smartphones, we will see. I’ll give them two months if they don’t do it I’m calling back.

    • Joseph Ogidan

      I had a Nokia phone back in 2008 that had a radio. All I needed to activate it was my head phone, and it worked perfectly well.

  • jeremiah stansbury

    please its our rite we paid for the phone why cant we have fm radio it wont cost you any thing to keep the public informed

  • callthemanufacture

    you’re provider has nothing to do with this they do not make the phones so be sure to call the manufacture the provider does not have a way to unlock this so don’t blame them and give more information on fm chips besides call your provider

    • Irwin Busk

      You are very incorrect. The provider orders the phone with their preferred software load, and with certain features and applications locked. The carrier can provide an “unlock” code, but is not required to by law. many will do so, if you are near the end of your contract.

  • sm spfld ma

    Radio is not a right. I’m all for the chip being activated but come on. npr is using you to push their agenda and getting this activated. It’s a scarf tactic. We all got text messages from the weather service when the tornado was on its way to western ma. Say you did have a radio on the phone then; how many people would put the radio on? I Google the tornado then and got the info I needed. Don’t be fools: you’re bejng used by public radio cronies to get more people to listen to PUBLIC RADIO. It’s a cheap marketing initiative.

    • Mrpockets

      If you are all about activating the chip then why are you urging people not to ask for it? Sure it’s an agenda. Everyone has an agenda. For all we know, you could hold a bunch of stock in Pandora and are pushing your own agenda by trying to make people feel stupid for wanting access to something that they’ve always had. That’s what you sound like to me.

  • Floyd Durham

    I just contacted Virgin and they claimed to have no knowledge of any of this. I was told that basically it probably not real and that just because it says so on the internet it doesn’t mean anything. They don’t want people using it then they loose money for data use….Like the owner of Virgin needs more money..lol