More than 10 years ago, U.S. Army researchers saw potential in flexible displays. With nothing in the marketplace, the Army decided to change that by partnering with industry and academia to create the Flexible Display Center at Arizona State University.
The Army’s goal was to get this amazing technology into the hands of Soldiers. The Army established a research center with industry and universities in 2004. Fast forward nine years. Teams of researchers have scored significant breakthroughs and racked up more than 50 patents. The original goal of the program may soon be met.
“We were starting to develop a lot of new kinds of electronic gizmos to help Soldiers,” said Nick Colaneri, center director. “The problem was, they all needed displays. Flat displays today are made out of glass. Glass is heavy and it breaks. So, we’re all about getting the glass out of displays.”
Researchers say the most important result was figuring out how to put conventional electronics onto plastic using existing electronics manufacturing equipment. This manufacturing breakthrough opened a world of possibilities.
“The process allows us to glue plastic onto a carrier in a standard manufacturing fabrication facility and then de-bond it — kind of like a Post-it note. Literally the plastic peels off from the carrier,” said Eric Forsythe, Ph.D., Army Research Laboratory, or ARL, team leader and flexible electronics deputy project manager. “This allows us to leverage traditional manufacturing paradigms for flexible displays, which then reduces overall entry costs to enable displays while enabling the capability to fabricate electronics on plastic. And that’s really the key for large-scale manufacturing of displays.”
“We’re going to unburden Soldiers by getting rid of a lot of the batteries that have to be carried today,” Colaneri said. “The nearest-term application we’ve been talking about is a display on the Soldier’s sleeve.”
Imagine what a Soldier could learn by glancing down at his or her sleeve such as current mission requirements or any battlefield command. That’s what Army researchers are thinking about for the Soldier of the future.
“The Soldier is going to have a display that is essentially embedded on his or her uniform that will provide information when it is needed,” said David Morton, Ph.D., ARL program manager for flexible displays. “The system will determine what information is needed, so as not to overload the Soldier with additional information. If a Soldier needs friend or foe information, or instructions on what to do, it will be provided instantly.”
Morton said the Soldier of the future will have more reliable technology.
“The display that’s on the Soldier will not break,” he said. “It will use very low power, and it’s not going to wear out. More importantly, from a systems standpoint, it’s made in a commercial environment. It didn’t cost too much to insert, which means we can give it to all Soldiers.”
The Army understands the advantages of flexible displays, Morton said.
“It’s all about getting networked information down to the individual Soldier,” Colaneri said. “Today you may have a squad leader with access to the network, any of the information that’s coming from the headquarters, or the network of sensors around the battlespace. But, the individual Soldier relies on hand signals or shouts in terms of communication. This will give a great deal of situational awareness, just simple stuff — ‘Where am I? Where are the bad guys? Which way is out? What other assets are available to help out in critical situations?’”
For the first few years, funding for the center came from the ARL. Industry partners are heavily invested, too. The Flexible Display Center in Tempe, Ariz., has more than 40 engineers and technicians. They collaborate with several professors at ASU, Princeton University and the University of Texas at Dallas. Many graduate students are also involved in the project.