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CHIPS Articles: DoD awards $154 million to Army-led flexible hybrid electronics program

DoD awards $154 million to Army-led flexible hybrid electronics program
Directly impacts the Soldier Lethality and Network Army modernization priorities
By U.S. Army CCDC Army Research Laboratory Public Affairs - July 21, 2020
ADELPHI, Md. -- Prototype flexible screens will soon show the way for future device interactions and capabilities as the Department of Defense announced it will continue investing in this technology.

The NextFlex Manufacturing Innovation Institute entered its second cooperative agreement with the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory. Government program management will be the responsibility of the U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development Command’s Army Research Laboratory.

As a part of this agreement, NextFlex will aid DoD’s mission to promote U.S. leadership in flexible hybrid electronics through the commercialization of prototype technologies developed by the Army.

Examples of these technologies include wearable devices that monitor health, as well as communication and sensor platforms that enable Soldier authentication to a network led by the Command, Control, Communication, Computers, Cyber, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Center, known as C5ISR. The Center has been leading a program to demonstrate Soldier network authentication devices for Soldier Lethality. The technologies may also help monitor the structural health of roads, bridges and building and even allow researchers to gain a substantial foothold in soft robotics.

NextFlex launched in 2015 through a $171 million cooperative agreement between the Department of Defense and the NextFlex institute. From 2015 to 2020, the initial partnership yielded more than 50 agency-funded projects that leverage more than 60 core-funded flexible hybrid electronics manufacturing projects, many of which directly supports U.S. Army modernization priorities.

The second cooperative agreement signed between NextFlex and the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory serves to further strengthen the public-private partnership and establish a U.S. manufacturing base to support both DoD and commercial applications. The official arrangement will span from 2020 to 2026 with a total of $154 million of funding provided by the Office of the Secretary of Defense ManTech Office.

The lab will primarily function as a facilitator in this agreement and task additionally with the responsibility to oversee the transition of Army technology into the private sector.

Examples of such projects include the flexible screen X-ray imager, a lightweight, portable digital detector array for inspection that allows technicians to scan and examine the contents of a suspected improvised explosive devices without touching them. This project highlights key partnerships with the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, CCDC-ARL, AFRL, and NextFlex with the industry and academic partners.

The flexible X-ray imager, developed by Army researchers at the laboratory and at the Army’s Flexible Display Center at Arizona State University, can withstand extreme battlefield conditions that commercial off-the-shelf systems often cannot handle. In addition, the flexible X-ray imagers only weigh a few pounds, whereas conventional x-ray panels are typically too heavy for warfighters to carry onto the field with ease.

Once researchers finished the prototype, the Army transitioned the flexible X-ray imager through NextFlex to manufacture and commercialize a fully flexible version of the product. Under the second cooperative agreement, the DoD X-ray imager devices will complete its transition to domestic manufacturing through the NextFlex Flexible Hybrid Electronic manufacturing ecosystem.

With the flexible X-ray imager, the goal is to bring the pieces together to get the technology into the hands of future Soldiers, Forsythe said.

“We want to make sure that the technology, the funding and the manufacturer are all aligned to support the end customer,” he said.

Another notable example of a flexible hybrid electronic system currently under transition in this agreement is a Soldier token authentication device that warfighters would wear to authenticate themselves to the Army network. This project, led by the CCDC- C5ISR Center, directly impacts the Soldier Lethality and Network Army modernization priorities.

Both the flexible X-ray imager and the authentication device represent only two out more than 60 DoD projects currently secured through the NextFlex cooperative agreement.

“The core funding and other OSD money supports the underlying manufacturing capability of the Army,” Forsythe said. “We want to leverage the industrial base and the manufacturing ecosystem that we built to push this kind of technology forward.”

CCDC Army Research Laboratory is an element of the U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development Command. As the Army’s corporate research laboratory, ARL discovers, innovates and transitions science and technology to ensure dominant strategic land power. Through collaboration across the command’s core technical competencies, CCDC leads in the discovery, development and delivery of the technology-based capabilities required to make Soldiers more lethal to win the nation’s wars and come home safely. CCDC is a major subordinate command of the U.S. Army Futures Command.

Additional editing by CHIPS Magazine.

A flexible X-ray digital imager made at Arizona State University's Flexible Electronics and Display Center uses alternative technology for flexible X-ray imaging. (U.S. Army)
This electronic circuit board, designed by the Palo Alto Research Center, is integrated with the flexible X-ray imager, which is used to find hidden threats such as explosive ordnance. NextFlex will create future electronic boards. (U.S. Army)
Researchers envision explosive ordnance disposal Soldiers wearing a future flexible wrist display unit using a digital detector array with flexible imaging and an X-ray generator to determine if there is explosive ordnance present. (U.S. Army)
The Army’s concept for Tap and Go wireless authentication is a wearable flexible circuit for the Soldier network. CCDC ARL partnered in the design and fabrication with NextFlex in San Jose, California, integrating knowledge across 60 core funded projects. (U.S. Army)
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