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Military invests in bioelectronics, wearables

Posted: 24 Nov 2015     Print Version  Bookmark and Share

Keywords:DARPA  bioelectronics  wearable  military  bio feedback 

The wearables technology is slowly making its way to a number of industries that effectively could transform how things are done. One in particular is the field of military. However, members of the U.S. Armed Forces may be the toughest consumers of all, especially when it comes to wearables. The demand for precision technology that isn't clunky and has a long battery life far exceeds that of the traditional wearable market.

"When it comes to wearables in the military, the calculus is very different," said Pae Wu, a scientific consultant to Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which commissions advanced research for the Department of Defence. "Ultimately, it must be able to support and advance a warfighter execute on his or her mission."

The U.S. military makes great use of smartphones, Wu said, noting that she is not a representative of DARPA. The move to wearables requires significant "situational awareness" and "actionable data" beyond tracking vital signs like heart rate.

"Nobody in the military cares if a technology is neat if it doesn't provide data that allows [fighters] to take a decision [in combat]," Wu said.

To that end, DARPA is interested in environmental information such as maps, real-time intelligence, and location tracking of other troops, as well as the emerging area of "warfighter readiness." Here, a wearable would tell users about their physiological state, whether a fighter is properly hydrated, over stressed, or suffering from cognitive fatigue.

The military has deployed one such readiness device called a blast gauge, which essentially does in-field triage to monitor for traumatic brain injuries. The small devices are worn on the helmet, shoulder, and chest to measure blast exposure and cue medics for initial response.

Blast Gauge

The blast gauge (circled) was an $11 million DARPA investment in monitoring brain injury. (Source: BlackBox Biometrics)

Blast Gauge

Blast Gauge (above) was developed under a DARPA contract by the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) to measure the wearer's exposure to blast exposure. (Image: DARPA)

"This are not gross systemic measurements of physiological state, but measurements that allow personnel to take action...go/no-go," Wu said.

The blast gauge wearable, which clips on and is small, is also successful because it meets the lightweight demands of war (the average squad leader in Afghanistan carries over 128 pounds daily, Wu said) and has excellent battery life. Wu added that a typical American soldier deployed in Afghanistan carries seven types of batteries for a 72-hour mission.

"The power equals weight scenario is very serious," she said. "And, specifically related to wearables, comfort is critical."

Biometric research

IDTechEx, which recently held a wearable technology conference in Santa Clara, Calif., pinned the market for medical-focused wearables at $15 billion this year with expectations of growth to $40 billion by 2026. But biosensor marking for the military has its own unique requirements, including multiplexing abilities, reversibility, real-time information, sensitivity and reliability.

"This all needs to happen in platform that doesn't require any sample prep. This is really a problem," Wu said.

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