Air Force Commits Millions for Wearables to Counteract Troops’ Exhaustion


Human monitoring devices could support military staff who work in extreme conditions.

The Air Force Research Laboratory aims to produce and deploy technology-boosted accessories that can continuously monitor individuals’ stress and fatigue in real-time—and wearable devices to counter those strains for people who operate in severe environments.

“These wearable technologies will ultimately be utilized in the field not only by the warfighter personnel but also firefighters, emergency responders, NASA and civilian astronauts, expedition crews, medical personnel, etc. to assess, augment, and optimize cognitive and physical performance,” officials wrote in a request for information published on Friday. 

Wearables refer to electronic devices that are attached to human bodies to capture data about their health, GPS location, physical movements, alertness and more. In recent years, multiple government agencies and military components have turned to this emerging technology to help spot disease outbreaks and optimize their staff’s performance, among other applications. 

“Mental and physical fatigue, as well as stress, are significant problems that impact the cognitive and physiological performance of warfighter personnel due to long-duration missions, mental exertion, cognitive overload,” according to a statement of work for the new wearable-related RFI. Austere environments—like in extreme cold or heat, or in high performance flight operations—impose “unique causes of fatigue” on troops, officials added, but countermeasures are limited.

The Defense Department at this point does not require physiological monitoring of its staff to identify “decrements due to fatigue,” but compelling research has demonstrated exhaustion impacts on performance in laboratory settings, AFRL officials also noted, and certain fatigue-countering techniques have been proven. 

“In fact, one 30-minute session of [transcranial direct current stimulation of the brain, or tDCS] can improve accuracy and reaction times 4 hours longer than 200mg of caffeine,” they wrote in the SOW.

A primary focus of the AFRL’s fresh effort is to produce wearable systems that can track “biometrics of fatigue and stress” using electrophysiological modalities and biomarkers like cortisol and adrenaline. Technologies to measure stress based on heart rate and facial feature extraction may also be developed. Beyond that work, a secondary focus of this pursuit involves creating wearables, sensors and advanced algorithms to counter environmental stressors. Those solutions might involve noninvasive nerve stimulation, tDCS, or appropriate chemical stimulants.

The lab’s ultimate aim is to make and demonstrate mature technologies that are low-powered, inexpensive and manufacturable at scale.

“As the Air Force drives toward the capability to sustain mission success in an all-out ‘five-day fight,’ rapid assessment and augmentation of physical and cognitive readiness and performance become crucial to maximize the warfighter’s potential and inform the Joint Area Domain Command and Control (JADC2) network more effectively as well,” officials wrote. 

The branch intends to fund $23 million for this initiative over the next half-decade. Its selected partner will need to match that amount, setting the minimum funding for this program at $46 million.

Entities interested in collaborating with the government are invited to respond to the RFI by Feb. 28.

This contract is anticipated to be awarded in August.