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Airmen enhance warfighting capabilities, assess risk through wearables technology

  • Published
  • By Master Sgt. Mysti Bicoy
  • 154th Wing Public Affairs

As part of the largest Talisman Sabre 23 (TS23) exercise to date, held in July and August, Total Force Airmen took part in an experimental Wearables Pilot Program, providing warfighters with a means to increase their battlefield effectiveness through technology.

Maintenance professionals and support personnel were outfitted with some of the latest and most advanced smartwatches available as they integrated F-22 Raptors alongside partners at Royal Australian Air Force Base Tindal.

While most users of wearable physiological technology enjoy core features such as heart-rate monitoring, step tallies, and sleep tracking, the collective program was held to give defense leaders the ability to determine the probability of risk more accurately as they execute fighter operations.

"Wearables provides us with a tool that can help clear some of the 'fog of war' through better situational awareness of both unit and personal fitness and readiness," said Maj. Eileen Ebenger, TS23 Air Force Engagement Lead from the 711th Human Performance Wing of the Air Force Research Lab (AFRL).

The Joint Program Executive Office executed this effort for Chemical, Biological, Radiological, and Nuclear Defense (JPEO-CBRND) as part of a broader initiative for the Chemical and Biological Defense (CBDP) Wearables Pilot Program to integrate wearable technology into the Department of Defense.

"What we would like to learn is what decisions leaders would make on the battlefield with the information provided by the wearables, and in both tactical and garrison environments, how the information being gathered will affect any other operations that need to be done to keep their troops from injury," said biologist Bryan Rivers, JPEO-CBRND TS23 Wearables Experiment lead.

The program, stemming from CBDP's investments in wearables since the mid-2010s, gained further momentum through collaboration with the Air Force Research Lab during the COVID-19 pandemic, leading to the development of a successful infection prediction algorithm. This success prompted a directive from the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment to launch a 15-month pilot effort to establish a coordinated wearables portfolio across the DoD.

JPEO-CBRND orchestrated the TS23 Wearables Experiment in Australia in partnership with multiple organizations representing all the services, including the Air Force Research Lab. Over 500 warfighters from land, sea, and air domains volunteered to be outfitted with various wearables utilizing different algorithms to monitor and predict physiological risks.

"We had 130 uniformed service members participate in our study from the Hawaii Air National Guard and 15th Wing out of Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, and additional units from various Pacific Air Force units," said biologist Julie Renner, JPEO-CBRND Air Force wearables site lead.

Smartwatches, wearable wrist-worn devices, were selected for the Air Force's portion of the experiment, gathering data on heart rate, variability, respiratory rate, and more. Data synchronization occurred daily, with participants who opted into the program visiting Wearables Experiment staff to synchronize their data with a central device via Bluetooth. This information was then sent to a local storage and analytics node for processing.

"Several illness prediction, heat stress, and fatigue algorithms were used across the domains in TS23 as a way to demonstrate how or if we could move data from skin to a data display thousands of miles away at a primary tactical operations center for decision makers to review," explains Renner. "Using these capabilities to detect, monitor, and predict physiological threats can provide a 'check engine light' for the warfighters."

Taking into account privacy concerns, the experiment yielded valuable insights. Participants that volunteered provided feedback and leadership evaluations highlighted increased individual awareness of health metrics, potentially benefiting unit health overall.

"The Wearables Experiment had four main goals during TS23: understand and inform echelon decision - making processes, move and manage data regionally, integrate capabilities, and to do all of this while minimizing warfighter burden," said Renner. "Being on-site allowed us to interact with the units and gather important feedback, observations, and findings from individual warfighters all the way up to leaders at multiple echelons."

The pilot program concluded at the end of the fiscal year, but the integration of wearables remains a priority for the DoD.

"Wearables have so much potential in giving the warfighter an advantage in the areas of warfighter readiness, health, and performance and, as such, the DoD will likely continue to explore the utility and integration of wearables," said Renner. "Our findings from TS23 may not only strengthen the ability of wearable technology to enhance operational decision-making but also inform future wearable technologies, algorithms, and policies as they mature."