The Future of Wearable Sensing: Trendy for Me, Tactical for Soldiers

The sweeping craze of wearable fitness trackers has enabled increased awareness of health status for everyday users. Combining step trackers with email, calendars, text alerts, and sleep monitoring has made wearable tech an integral part of a daily routine.  Add in some friendly competition as people challenge their friends to see who can get the most daily steps, and these devices provide a fun incentive to make sure you are always wearing it. But recently these wearable tech companies have invested in providing more meaningful data than just step tracking and energy expenditure. Sleep quality measurements and heart rate tracking have opened the door to potentially more significant health monitoring. As wearable tech continues to develop, providing a health conscious, competitive game with friends looks like just the beginning.

Warfighter health readiness is constantly at-risk due to biological (naturally occurring or intentionally released) and chemical exposure. The U.S. Armed Forces has a history of encountering infectious diseases in the field. In the past, infectious diseases have caused greater mortality than battle injuries.[1] Melioidosis, nicknamed the “Vietnamese time bomb”, is a notable example of warfighters unknowingly encountering bacteria as helicopters kicked up dirt and hidden pathogens in the tropical soil. Melioidosis is often difficult to diagnose, and can remain latent for years before symptoms actively present. U.S. military personnel were on the ground providing logistical support and training during the Ebola outbreak in West Africa.[2] Outbreaks of Q fever and leishmaniasis in soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan prove biological exposure is not a stand-alone risk, but a ubiquitous threat regardless of time and place. Identifying the presence of disease before the soldier knows they have been exposed provides the opportunity to remove the soldier from immediate threats, treat the soldier quickly, and keep the soldier in condition for action.

If wearable sensors being developed could alert soldiers and leaders to impending illness, before a soldier starts to feel the symptoms of a disease, this information could be integrated with other information as part of the Integrated Early Warning effort under development by the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA.) Dr. Christian Whitchurch is providing the vision and leading the effort for Wearable Sensing for Chemical and Biological Exposure Monitoring.[3]

One key element of enabling IEW wearable technology is effectively managing data from devices to a platform that can analyze data and create useful data visualizations. As Mike Midgley mentioned in a previous blog post, “the challenge in developing this integrated architecture is not only collecting all of this information in real time from a network of sensors and other data sources, but also enabling the commanders to get the ‘so-what’ to make informed decisions and not become paralyzed by an excess of data”. On the individual level, preemptively identifying illness or heat strain could keep the warfighter healthy and fit for continued work in the field. On an aggregate level, trends in data could show when units are collectively exposed to a threat, or have reached an unsafe level of heat strain. This information would only be useful, however, when packaged into a digestible form.

Equivital Ltd, of Cambridge, UK, is one wearable tech company which has developed a display that uses green, amber, and red indicators to suggest the risk associated with each soldier’s physiological status.  Some measures such as body temperature and heart rate may not be very useful on their own as warning indicators, but they can be combined in an algorithm produced by the US Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine (USARIEM) into a Heat Strain Index (HSI) to alert leaders of potential heat injury. Leveraging data visualization like that of the Equivital™ Black Ghost System (shown below) to display warning for potential illness is the next step.

Equivital™ Black Ghost Application[4]
Integrated early warning using wearable technology would enable timely countermeasures, triage, and exposure notification to not only protect the lives of our warfighters, but to enable mission assurance and provide information for effective decision making. Integrating wearable tech with personalized medicine and military preparedness would best enable our military leadership to make informed and proactive decisions for the benefit of the warfighter. We are only beginning to scratch the surface for the capabilities of this developing wearable technology. Continued multisector coordination between the warfighter, military leadership, and researchers will pave the way for wearable technology to function in a way that best serves all stakeholders. GSE looks forward to supporting this effort as DTRA leads the way for Wearable Sensing for Integrated Early Warning.

Written by Kat Gray katarina.gray@globalsyseng.com

[1] https://kaiserfamilyfoundation.files.wordpress.com/2013/10/8504-the-u-s-department-of-defense-and-global-health-infectious-disease-efforts.pdf

[2] https://www.defense.gov/News/Article/Article/603892/

[3] http://www.nbmc.org/wp-content/uploads/1.7-Whitchurch-Defense-Threat-Reduction-Agency.pdf

[4] http://www.equivital.co.uk/products/military

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