wearable health sensors

Fitbit for the battlefield? Not just yet.

The Defense Department is increasingly adapting technologies from the private sector, but commercial solutions are not necessarily built to the same security and durability standards the government requires.  Additionally, market competition may cause some companies to oversell their products’ capabilities.

“I can tell you at least 70 percent of the devices we tested do not work as advertised,” Rajesh Naik, chief scientist with the Air Force Research Laboratory and Air Force Materiel Command, said at a recent Defense One Technology Summit.    

Naik’s group studies the cognitive, biological and physiological performance of warfighters to develop tools that can aid soldiers, such as the BioStampRC Wearable Sensing Platform that measures and transmits biometric data that was tested at AFRL last fall. 

Naik explained that the Air Force has a “gold standard testing lab” to evaluate commercial devices for a futuristic connected soldier.  “We have tested every device that’s out there on the market and … what they claim in terms of the data that you can pull out,” he said. After testing everything from wrist wearables to chest-worn harnesses, he said, it's clear that “there’s a lot of fudging of the data.”

Most consumer-focused fitness devices were never intended to meet mil-spec standards, of course. And Naik stressed that the microelectronics industry is making significant contributions. 

One of the biggest challenges, Naik said, is not accuracy, but simply extracting actionable data from wearables and sensors.  “We’re going to be sure that as [warfighters] use these devices that they can make some sense of the data they are getting,” Naik said.  “I see changes in heart rate, [but] does it really lead to some actionable information that I can give to the warfighter, the commander about someone’s status?”

For the time being, these devices are not being used in combat situations, though Naik said his team is working with the Special Operations community to gather and make sense of data collected in training exercises, which can then be used to create an appropriate training regimen for warfighters. 

About the Author

Mark Pomerleau is a former editorial fellow with GCN and Defense Systems.

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