The global engineer

From an Internet-connected umbrella to a supramolecular rubber coat that never gets rumpled - E&T tries on new high-tech outfits for the travelling engineer.

Oh, what should I wear? I have office suits, party outfits, sports gear and casual clothes. But, considering I spend so much time on the move, why don't I have any clothes specifically for travelling? Because, while designers cater for all other areas of our lives, when it comes to travel there's nothing much more on offer than a pair of multi-pocketed safari pants, as if we're still in the reign of the Empress of India and trotting about in palanquins. But there have been recent developments in the travel industry to try and redress this lack of a proper wardrobe for wanderers. Check into a Travelodge and you can be issued with a free sleepsuit, which looks like something Flash Gordon might wear at night, complete with matching gloves, socks and balaclava. After a survey revealed that scratching, overheating, and getting cold were the commonest causes of interrupted sleep away from home, the sleepsuits were made from knitted silk to allow the skin to breath and prevent itchiness. Travelodge's 'sleep director' Leigh McCarron says: "We are constantly investigating innovative ways of how we can help our customers attain a good night's sleep." But the benefits of nodding off as if you were a caterpillar in a cocoon are disputed. "The body needs to cool down slightly when you go to bed. Tight clothes and a hood could, if anything, make sleeping worse," says Professor Jim Horne, director of Loughborough University's Sleep Research Centre.

Travelodge have it right, however, in presuming it's comfort rather than haute couture that we're interested in. Other companies are vying to find clothes that make your muscles less tired and promise what the brochures tactfully call 'moisture management'.

Australian company Skins boasts 'BioAcceleration Technology' with 'engineered gradient compression' in their tops and underpants. Skins claims: "When compression is engineered to apply a balanced and accurate surface pressure over specific body parts, it triggers an acceleration of blood flow. This increases oxygen delivery to working muscles to enhance their performance. The circulation improvements also help the body to eliminate lactic acid and other metabolic wastes." That should make sitting through a long meeting far more bearable. Staying healthy is another main concern. Mosquito-repellent clothing has been around for some time. But now researchers from North Carolina State University College of Textiles have invented a cocktail of chemicals that can be applied as a nano-thin layer on cotton, nylon and polyester. This concoction is made of light-absorbing chemical dyes which wipe out viruses and bacteria within a second when exposed to visible light by converting oxygen in the air to a toxic gas. Thankfully, causing microbe massacre, it's harmless to us humans. The researchers predict we could counter most threats from the common cold to SARs by just dipping our clothes in it.

If you're not worried about getting sick, you may still want to look smart. Clothes tend to look well-worn after they've been trundled over an ocean in a suitcase. And a complimentary sewing kit is often no use for making repairs. But scientists at the Industrial Physics and Chemistry Higher Educational Institution in Paris have invented an elastic material that can mend itself after being broken, thanks to its arrangement of molecules. Called 'supramolecular rubber', it's like elastic with 'sticky ends' when a break occurs. The torn ends are simply pushed together and start healing because the surfaces have lifelike attributes and seek to form bridges. After 15 minutes, it's as good as new. And it doesn't matter how often you catch your supramolecular rubber coat on the door handle. The process can be repeated as many times as you like.

If it threatens to rain on your self-repairing ensemble, there's always the prototype Pileus - an umbrella connected to the Internet - designed by two Japanese postgraduate students. The Pileus has a screen, camera, motion sensor, GPS and a digital compass. The screen is under the umbrella, so you can see a 3D image of your surroundings. You can take photos and wirelessly upload them to Flickr, operated through snapping your wrist on the handle controls.

Whether you'd be able to capture any images of Europe's new generation of high-speed trains is doubtful as they travel too fast. Since my last column, more trains have been shooting off the sleepers. Spain's AVE 300kmph service between Madrid and Barcelona has been launched, taking just over two-and-a-half hours. State operator Renfe is already planning to up the speed to 350kmph by the end of this year. The Danube Express is in no such hurry on its languorous route around Central Europe. This luxury train, launching this September, takes 24 hours to reach Krakow from Budapest. The 1950s wood-panelled Presidential cars 'evoke a bygone era' but, we're assured, they are pulled by a 'modern electric locomotive'. Perhaps I could wear a safari suit for the journey.

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