If today’s Pentagon leaders get their way, the next generation of fighter jets, body armor, computer systems, and weapons will understand more about the pilots, soldiers, and analysts using them than those operators understand about the machines they are using. The very experience of flying the plane, analyzing satellite images, even firing a gun could change depending on what the weapon, vehicle, or software detects about the person to whom the weapon is bound. To make this dream real, Pentagon-backed researchers are designing an entirely new generation of wearable health monitors that make Silicon Valley’s best consumer fitness gear look quaint. They’re discovering how to detect incredibly slight changes in focus, alertness, health, and stress—and to convey those signals to machines. Design the boots well enough and the super soldier will arrive to fill them.
Army Research Laboratory researchers already monitor individual subjects from six months to two years. Brooks wants to expand that to other military training environments, such as the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York, and then to more than a dozen universities. He hopes the data will reveal how people of varied size, weight, height, health, level of alertness, etc., differ in terms of the signals they send out—hence the name “human variability.” That, in turn, will help researchers gather much more precise information on how different people interact with their environment. The ultimate goal is sensors that can tell the Pentagon how each human soldier performs, or could perform, to their best ability, from battlefield to home front.
“It’s not just while they’re at work, but also when they go on leave,” says Brooks. “This is continuous, with the highest practical resolution that we can obtain for a long period of time. Hopefully, we would see information going into many programs” to build future gear. “A greater understanding of natural human variability would then feed pretty much any system that adapts to the person.”
It’s an ambitious undertaking, considering the current limitations of body-worn sensors. Over the past two years, the military bought more than $2 million worth of Fitbits and other biomedical tracking devices. But it turns out that off-the-shelf consumer devices aren’t good enough for the military’s biotracking ambitions. So researchers are creating a new class of wearables, based on new research into embedding electronic components into fabric. If the electrodes are too small, the signal is worthless; too big, and they feel like an artificial electric shell separating the wearer from the real world. The connection between the environment and the human must remain seamless.
One application for such sensors is helmets that record brain activity while their wearers do their jobs. An ARL team is preparing for continuous electroencephalography, or EEG, by using 3-D printing to create helmets that fit perfectly to each individual soldier’s head. But the military is not eager to embed wires and metal into gear that’s meant to protect a soldier during a massive blast. So the lab is constantly looking at new materials, solutions, and tradeoffs, inching toward sensors that collect information without getting in the way of soldiering. Lab technicians showed me one experimental electrode that they were making that was so small and soft to the touch it seemed to have no metal in it at all (they are in fact constructed of nanofibers that conduct electricity, encased in silicon).