Helmets Like Iron Man’s And A Smart Shirt That Calls For Help: Inside The Pentagon’s Wearable Tech Revolution

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“Poor Bob,” says Alexander Gruentzig, pointing at a mannequin with a screwdriver handle sticking out of its right shoulder. The founder of the Boston-area startup Legionarius stabbed Bob to demonstrate the abilities of a camouflage uniform shirt it’s wearing that contains a lightweight sensor layer developed by his company. The “smart shirt” has sent an alert to a tactical smartphone that shows the area of the wound, Bob’s vital signs and location. The aim, says Gruentzig, is to get help to wounded soldiers sooner.

“Ninety percent of preventable combat deaths are caused by massive hemorrhaging. If you can stop the bleeding in the first minute the chance of survival goes up tremendously,” Greuntzig told Forbes earlier this month at a defense trade show in Washington, D.C., where his technology was featured as one of the winners of the Army’s latest XTechSearch contest.

The smart uniform, which Legionarius has been developing with the help of U.S. Special Operations Command and roughly $1.1 million in government funding, is part of a wave of work across the U.S. military to develop wearable technology to protect soldiers and better gauge their physical condition in real time. It ranges from efforts to harness consumer smart watches and other fitness devices that track exertion to cutting-edge research to manipulate the brain to improve sleep and to develop an Iron Man-like helmet that would detect threats and activate countermeasures to protect against concussion and directed energy weapons.

“The military has historically been like, if I want to make you a better soldier, I’ll give you a better gun,” says Brandon Marcello, a sports physiologist who’s worked with pro teams on improving performance. He’s currently involved with a U.S. Army Futures Command program called Optimizing the Human Weapon System (OHWS) that’s using health-tracking wearables with soldiers. Its goal: “How can we now optimize the human and make them smarter, more lethal, more precise?” he says.

The coronavirus pandemic served as an accelerant. In 2020, the Defense Innovation Unit distributed thousands of Garmin smart wristwatches and Oura finger rings to track service members’ temperature, pulse and blood oxygen levels and found that it could predict Covid-19 cases with 73% accuracy. It was an expansion of a DIU initiative begun in 2018 with Philips Healthcare called Rapid Analysis of Threat Exposure (RATE) that developed an algorithm aimed at predicting a wide range of common illnesses 48 hours before symptoms are displayed.

With Optimizing the Human Weapon System, Army brass also wanted to see if consumer wearables could be used to diagnose Covid, but the program is looking at much more than just tip-offs for illness. For the past two years, OHWS has used the Oura ring to assess quality of sleep and Polar Grit X Pro smart watches to monitor heart rate and exertion among a battalion of 530 soldiers from the 10th Mountain Division at Fort Drum, New York, and while deployed at a base in Afghanistan. The data has also been used by a related effort called Measuring and Advancing Soldier Tactical Readiness and Effectiveness, or MASTR-E, to develop algorithms to predict soldiers’ performance.

On a unit level, MASTR-E, OHWS and similar Navy and Air Force programs aim to help commanders know when their troops are being pushed too much or can be trained harder, and for the individual soldier, give them feedback on things like how their breathing effects their marksmanship, or how a heavy night’s drinking impacts their performance the next day.

OHWS, which will be expanded next year to a small brigade of 2,000, is trying to teach soldiers “the why behind their physiology so that they actually make better choices at the individual level,” says program manager Joseph Patterson.

The data also encourages officers to engage more with their soldiers and “become more caring,” says Patterson, “more human.”

If a soldier has elevated respiration and overnight heart rates, it could be an indicator of stress that tips off officers to check in, says Marcello. “It could be anything from, ‘Let’s get them tested for Covid,’ to, ‘Hey, this looks like a mental health issue. Let’s intervene before anything really bad happens.’ ”

Consumer fitness trackers make sense during training, but they may not have the battery life to last during a mission, and many can’t link up with tactical communication systems, says Alan Harner of the U.S. Army Medical Materiel Development Activity. He’s product manager for a cross-services program that’s developing a tiny bio-sensor with the Pennsylvania-based startup LifeLens Technologies that’s tailored for field deployment and that they say can track 150 types of health data, from vital signs to underhydration to blast pressures that could lead to brain injuries.

The device is an adhesive patch containing a seven-layer stretchable circuit with a nickel-sized disc in the center that has a processor, transmitter and battery with 72 hours’ power. It’s placed on the chest, which provides more accurate readings on vital signs than wrist- or finger-worn consumer devices, and it’s comfortable enough that users can forget it’s there, says LifeLens CEO Landy Toth.

Dubbed the Health Readiness And Performance System (HRAPS), it’s been trialed to prevent heat injuries in training by Army Rangers at Fort Benning, Georgia, and with U.S. Special Forces. It’s on track to be the first wearable to transition to wider distribution through the Army’s Program Executive Office Soldier, which accelerates development of equipment, Harner says.

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For all the promise of wearables, Marcello says they may just be a transition technology to less noticeable forms of health monitoring like diagnostic tattoos and “nearables,” which can check vital signs visually from afar.

The military is also backing “moonshot” programs, like a $2.8 million Army-funded effort centered at Houston’s Rice University to develop a cap that would improve soldiers’ sleep by stimulating the flow of the glymphatic system in the brain, which is believed to clean out metabolic waste.

It’s ambitious, in part, because it’s not settled science yet that the glymphatic system, which has been documented in animals, exists in humans, says Paul Cherukuri, a former biomedical device developer in charge of the project who is Rice’s vice president for innovation.

The marching orders from the Army program manager: “I want you guys to go for a Nobel as well as a brand new wearable,” Cherukuri says.

Cherukuri is also leading a $1.3 million Navy-backed project based at Rice to build a futuristic helmet that he likens to Iron Man’s, popularized in the Marvel movies starring Robert Downey Jr., complete with a rudimentary version of his AI assistant JARVIS that would detect threats and deploy active protections.

Engineers on the project are working with the California 3D-printing unicorn Carbon to develop new lightweight polymers to extrude a lattice-like framework for the helmet that can be custom-printed to fit individual soldiers.

They plan to incorporate tiny lensless flat cameras developed at Rice and other sensors. The helmet would interpret sensor data to warn soldiers of dangers outside their field of vision, either via haptics or a heads up display, and take countermeasures. Cherukuri hopes to use methods he’s helped develop to manipulate nanomaterials with electric fields to counter blast forces and prevent traumatic brain injuries, as well as to erect an electromagnetic shield against directed energy weapons like those suspected to be behind Havana Syndrome.

They’ve mocked up a Mark 1 version that’s double the target weight of three pounds. Cherukuri says among the hard parts at this point are building the smarts to interpret sensor information and figuring out how to equip the helmet with enough power.

The aim, he says, is to help “the guys who are going to be in the hole for a very, very long time who are disconnected from home base. Can we keep them alive and healthy?”

A concern for all wearable programs—beyond proving their technology actually works—is finding the funding to keep them healthy through the DoD’s dreaded “Valley of Death,” when research grants run out and there’s no immediate acquisitions decision that would get it to the holy land of military projects: becoming a so-called “program of record,” with its own line in the budget. HRAPS has accomplished that. RATE, the effort to use wearables to predict illness, has not. Its former program manager has argued its fate is a case study in how innovation can be stymied by the Pentagon’s slow-moving bureaucracy.

Harner says it’s important for the Pentagon to work with companies that have civil customers to provide other sources of revenue.

HRAPS partner LifeLens, which won clearance for its device last year from the Food and Drug Administration, has also been marketing it to hospitals.

Legionarius founder Gruentzig is trying to sell first responders on his smart shirt. He says several state police SWAT teams are interested in testing it. Gruentzig and his three teammates have worked on adding air bladders to the shirt that would inflate around a wound to provide compression to stop bleeding, but they’re not seeking to commercialize it until a potential customer shows interest.

For now, he’s looking forward to getting back on a base to do more testing with the Army after the pandemic made that difficult. “Getting these things dirty,” Gruentzig says, pointing to hangers displaying his smart shirts, “that’s what we’re looking for.”

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