Army Outfits Paratroopers with Wearables to Gauge Stress 

Paratroopers exit from two Air Force C-17 Globemaster III aircraft during an airborne operation on the first day of a nine-day field training exercise in 2014 at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska. 

Paratroopers exit from two Air Force C-17 Globemaster III aircraft during an airborne operation on the first day of a nine-day field training exercise in 2014 at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska.  Jeffrey Smith/U.S. Army

It’s all part of collaborative research leveraging military-centered, biometric data.

Alaska-based, U.S. Army paratroopers are sporting biometric data-collecting wearables nonstop for half a year as part of ongoing research to inform how military members operate—and deal with strains—in arctic and other extreme environments.

The project is unfolding in collaboration with the University of Queensland, according to a press release published Wednesday, and human performance company WHOOP is behind the devices.

“What makes this research unique is it is the first study to capture 24/7 biometric data, subjective measures, and performance data over a six-month period. This will provide reliable insights into what is really happening with wearers throughout their daily lives, and also provide an accurate non-invasive measure of stress during high octane activities like those conducted in the military,” WHOOP’s Vice President of Performance Science Kristen Holmes, told Nextgov Tuesday. “The collective goal is to provide Army Alaska with a physiological blueprint to make a more resilient soldier.” 

Personal, day-to-day health data is being compiled from 1,000 participants across the Spartan Brigade—or the sole team of Army paratroopers that conduct airborne activities across the Arctic and Pacific theaters. Holmes, who helped design the study, explained that part of the intent behind it is to “gain a better understanding of the individual soldier, by utilizing wearable technology.” 

The fitness-monitoring devices have sensors that sit against users’ skin and can be worn continuously anywhere on their wrists or arms. Specifically, the rugged accessories track metrics like heart rate variability, ambient temperature, resting heart rate, respiratory rate, and sleep staging. On an app that accompanies the wearable, those involved can also track more than 50 different behaviors and lifestyle choices, which can subsequently be factored alongside physiological data.

“We utilize [artificial intelligence] in our algorithms which learn from the rich datasets we have collected over time to continue to refine our product,” Holmes said.

The research project is set to analyze personalized data around wearers’ daily strains, recovery and breathing rates, sleep—and more. It’ll produce “a biometric baseline for the Spartan Brigade grounded in overall resilience, stress, and sleep quality,” Holmes noted. Participating paratroopers can directly access their own data, and those in charge will be able to assess and act on their own teams’ information, as well. 

“Imagine as a squad leader that you have a paratrooper that has had an abnormally low recovery for several days. Maybe your platoon has been in the field for weeks, or the paratrooper just returned from an Army school," Spartan Command Sgt. Maj. Alex Kupratty said in a statement. “Now, you have the data to better help them recover, or to adjust your training to match the team's needs.”

While the Pentagon encountered previous challenges posed by wearable technology, Holmes said WHOOP’s “unique security functions” were a factor that contributed to the Army’s use of it. 

The device “does not have Wi-Fi, GPS, and utilizes a unique Bluetooth function that makes it user-friendly in most military spaces,” she noted, adding that the data and insights captured via the wearables and app are “securely stored by WHOOP.” It’s all to be shared in a de-identified form with the university researchers, who will keep the data on password-protected computers prior to data analysis.

“By providing the U.S. Army with more insight about individual physiology and the impacts of training in an extreme environment, soldiers will be better equipped to manage stress and ultimately, have higher readiness,” Holmes said.

The research will come to an end in May, and results are slated to be submitted for peer review this summer.