Great, But Why Did It Take So Long?

Knowing the well-being of their troops whether in a combat situation or preparing for a mission obviously is of paramount importance to battlefield commanders. The success of any military operation relates directly to the physical and mental readiness of the participants. Are the troops alert? Are they properly rested? Have they had enough food and water? Are any of them ill? Armed with this information, commanders can quickly assess the health of their forces and decide whether to commence or postpone an engagement.

Until now, determining the physical condition of each soldier deployed in the field was either hit or miss. But next month, a monitoring system will undergo field testing that promises to drastically elevate the level of information commanders will have on the health of their troops.

As reported in a recent edition of the MIT Technology Review, the U.S. Army will conduct a large-scale test of a wearable health-status monitoring system, the result of a three-year, $9M project. Designed to be as light as possible at 720 grams, the wearable system consists of a chest belt, watch, backpack canteen, and central processing hub.

The chest belt is loaded with sensors that measure bodily functions and conditions such as pulse rate, respiration, skin temperature, and movement. A temperature probe measures skin temperature while movement is determined by an accelerometer that senses whether the wearer is stationary, walking, running, or riding in a vehicle.

Currently being tested in Iraq, the watch gathers information from embedded accelerometers to determine if the soldier is asleep or awake. Collecting this data over a period of time will indicate if the soldier is getting enough sleep and consequently able to effectively carry out his assignments.

According to the article, the backpack canteen provides information on how much water the soldier drinks. Sensors detect the flow of water from the canteen: a slow, uneven rate for sips and a steady stream for a possible leak. Measuring the amount of liquid consumed will determine proper hydration or indicate an equipment malfunction.

The processing of all sensor information from the wearable items is assimilated in the hub with the resulting data transmitted to a medic carrying a PDA. Quickly scanning the data, the medic can determine if the soldier has had enough sleep in the last few hours, is properly hydrated, and exhibits normal vital signs. Additionally, the data can be displayed on a battlefield map showing the location and status of each soldier: green for okay, red for investigate, blue for unknown, and grey for no signs of life for more than five minutes.

Although its primary function is to enable medical personnel to respond quickly to downed soldiers, a side benefit of the wearable health system is the prevention of sickness and injury. If an elevated body temperature is detected along with inadequate hydration and sleep, a medic can be dispatched to provide the proper treatment before a more serious condition develops.

The health-monitoring system should help keep troops healthy and, when injured, provide a quick means of getting treatment to them. However, you might think the cost of this project is somewhat high and the development phase unusually long, particularly in light of the fact that no new sensor technology is involved. As noted in the article, the uniqueness of the system lies in the software. But does it take three years to write the special algorithms needed to acquire, analyze, and present this seemingly simple data? Couldn t the project have been completed sooner for less money?

Paul Milo
Editorial Director
[email protected]

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