Published January 19, 2012
Editors' Note: Due to an editing error, a prior version of this article incorrectly identified the acronym BDU. The error has been corrected below.
Just don’t call them Underoos.
Technically known as a “wear and forget physiological sensing system,” thinking undergarments may be the next-generation drawers for the modern warfighter.
Gel-free sensors form an electronic network in the fabric to monitor respiration and heart rate, activity, body posture and skin temperature -- relaying that data through the warfighters’ layers of clothing to a central system. The technology could provide an unprecedented capability not just to monitor warfighters during combat and identify critical casualties but also to train and select for missions.
The U.S. Army Medical Research and Material Command office (USAMRMC) and the Telemedicine & Advanced Technology Research Center (TATRC) have been working with Foster-Miller and Malden Mills Industries to create the new low-cost knitted undergarments (photographs of the work in progress aren't available yet). One of their main objectives: to make the high-tech textiles super comfortable, so warfighters will indeed comply and wear them -- that’s where the whole “wear and forget” part comes in.
While it’s possible to integrate the sensors into the battle dress uniform (BDU in military-speak), the focus has been on a plug and play undie approach that would stand alone and wouldn’t add cost to existing standard issue.
Ultimately, intelligent undergarments could provide data on factors such as altitude adaptation, burn and blunt trauma, blood volume, metabolic activity, CBRN exposure, life sign detection and respiratory distress -- data that that predictive algorithms could be exploited.
And with acoustic sensors, the underpants could assess ballistic impact and thoracic sounds for trauma.
Current approaches to monitoring warfighters generally involve an awkward chest strap with an attached electronics unit that relays limited and at times unreliable information. Even basic Life Sign Detection Systems have proven beyond reach for many companies rendering their systems unfit for deployment
The Army Warfighter Physiological Status Monitoring System made considerable progress and measures heart and respiratory rate, activity, fluid consumption, skin and core body temperature, posture, activity and ballistic impact.
Aside from the chestband, companies working in the commercial space such as Bodywear tend to focus on armbands or vests, like VivoMetrics’ “Life shirt.”
This intelligent undergarment could be an excellent tool to train leaders to understand the physical limits of their warfighters. For the warfighter, it would be useful to help distinguish between real and perceived physical limitations, helping them push past these perceptions and improve performance.
Rate of injury in training may also be reduced by utilizing close bone and muscle monitoring that this technology could provide.
In terms of mission selection, with the physical status data that the undergarments could provide on warfighters and units, a leader may be better able to identify those most fit for the job.
While deployed, data from the undergarments could allow leaders to monitor performance readiness, alert a leader to performance impairment and perhaps most importantly assess the ability of their warfighter to continue or complete the mission.
Fatigue is always a challenge and can erode performance. The undergarments could identify fatigue signals and alert the warfighter or leader that fatigue countermeasures should be exercised to ensure performance either in training or in an operational environment.
When warfighters are operating in a remote area or working in CBRN protective suits, the undergarments could be particularly useful for monitoring their health.
A command center could remotely monitor the physical status of each warfighter and would be immediately alerted if a warfighter was injured together with detailed data from the sensors.
For the medic in the field in the thick of it, the undergarments could provide information in advance of reaching the casualty to assist in more rapid assessment and effective triage. It could also prevent a medic from unnecessarily risking his life by notifying the medic that a warfighter is already dead.
In the conduct of contemporary warfare, warfighters are required to master and run ever increasingly complicated technologies such as targeting and weapons systems. For example pilots, whether fighter jet or helicopter, are responsible for extremely expensive advanced aircraft all requiring a high and constant degree of cognitive readiness in spite of often operating in superhuman lengths of shifts – maintaining this readiness could usefully be monitored back at HQ.
Training professional athletes, monitoring the health of employees working in hazardous or industrial environments, telemedicine, civilian medical care and the exercise and health market in general are just a few of the other wider applications where the technology could be useful.
Right now this promising sensor system technology is in textile development -- but the ultimate goal is to make it work, and soon.
Ballet dancer turned defense specialist Allison Barrie has travelled around the world covering the military, terrorism, weapons advancements and life on the front line. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @Allison_Barrie