One thousand soldiers will start carrying a two-pound pack of blast sensors in Afghanistan starting next month to collect data on concussions and traumatic brain injuries.
Called the Soldier Body Unit, the pack that straps onto a soldier’s plate carrier has four blast sensors that communicate with each other to capture how the blast affects a soldier’s entire body. It’s one piece of the Integrated Blast Effects Sensor Suite that also includes blast sensors installed into Army vehicles.
The Army’s Rapid Equipping Force has worked hard with the Georgia Tech Research Institute to rush the sensor suite to Afghanistan to collect as much data as possible on concussions and TBIs before soldiers leave in 2014.
“We’re trying to get the data while we still can. I don’t want this to sound wrong, but the data we collect from these explosions is very important for us to measure how these blasts affect a soldier’s head and body,” said Amy O’Brien, a REF chief scientist.
Lt. Gen. John F. Campbell, the Army deputy chief of staff, G-3/5/7, ordered the service on July 23 to “undertake a holistic review” of Army blast effect sensors and TBI mitigation requirements to produce a service requirement for both “as soon as possible,” according to an official message.
The Army’s Council of Colonels and General Officer Steering Committee will receive a briefing on the way forward for blast sensors and TBI mitigation requirements in September. Army officials hope to avoid any overlaps and streamline the effort to get as many sensors into theater as possible.
The Army has recognized for a while that it needs to rush these blast sensors to Afghanistan. Former Army Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Peter Chiarelli used to hold up the first blast gauges the Army developed at each one of his speaking events in 2011 to stress their importance. He listed them as his top priority in 2010.
Army officials think they have improved on those blast gauges with the I-BESS, the next generation of blast sensors. What sets the I-BESS apart is the total body approach to recording concussions and TBIs.
The Army is currently deploying the first 1,000 Soldier Body Units due to arrive in theater next month. Soldiers in RC-East will receive 700; 200 will go to U.S. Army Special Operations Command; and the last 100 will go to Stryker units.
The Army is also installing 42 vehicles with floor-and seat-mounted accelerometers to measure the effect of blasts on soldiers inside vehicles hit by improvised explosive devices. Engineers will install I-BESS sensors into Mine Resistant Ambush Protected All Terrain Vehicles and MaxxPro Dash MRAPs in Afghanistan rather than ship more vehicles.
Soldiers have tested the Soldier Body Units and sent feedback to REF and Georgia Tech engineers. Initially, soldiers balked at the idea of adding another piece of kit they had to wear on patrols.
Jesse Hester, the liaison officer between the REF and Georgia Tech’s Research Institute, said the Army could soon cut down Soldier Body Unit’s weight to half a pound. Most of the mass is found in the two batteries and the thick plastic case protecting the main hub collecting the data from the four sensors. REF officials used 3-volt batteries because soldiers already carried them. The thick plastic was used to allow the computer hubs to sustain blasts.
“These are prototypes. We can make them smaller,” Hester said.
The blast sensors will not only collect data, they could save soldiers from themselves. Army Sgt. 1st Class Joshua Marion said he saw too many fellow soldiers pretend they didn’t sustain concussions to stay in the fight only to sustain more serious brain injuries in the future.
“With these, they can’t hide,” Marion said, holding up one of the Soldier Body Units.
He’s worn one of the blast sensor packs and said the usual reaction from a soldier is to try to lighten his load. When Marion wore his, he adjusted the straps to lower the back sensors to his lower back to make it more comfortable. He said it was hard to even tell the sensors were there while wearing his plate carrier.
“Guys will wear it once they hear from brigade and leadership how important these are. They won’t leave them on patrols,” Marion said.
All of the data collected by the I-BESS will go to the Joint Trauma Analysis and Prevention of Injury in Combat, where medical professionals will have access to the database. A personal code inside each soldier’s Common Access Card will protect the soldier’s individual medical data, Hester said.
Both a classified and unclassified set of data will be made available. The only difference with the classified data will be a detailed description of the blast event that hit the soldier. Army officials felt a classified dataset was necessary to protect mission details and operational security, Hester said.
In order for the blast sensors to be most effective, Army scientists need to establish a baseline with each soldier. Before they receive a Soldier Body Unit, each soldier will take an eye test.
The Army developed an Eye-Tracking Rapid Attention Computation (TRAC) assessment tool built by Sync-Think to apply the test. Doctors can use a complex set of algorithms to measure a soldier’s recovery by how well they can follow a dot that moves in a circle.
Hester stressed the I-BESS will only work with this integrated system. It’s what sets I-BESS apart from the earlier $75 blast gauges. The Soldier Body Unit costs $2,500 each, but Hester said that cost will reduce dramatically once the blast packs are built in mass like the early blast gauges.
The first blast gauges only turned on when they experienced overpressure. This often made them useless inside vehicles. The Soldier Body Unit is always running and will collect data from multiple parts of the body. Two of the sensors sit on the chest. The other two sit on the back.
“This is a step forward but we still have work to do to improve these,” Hester said.
Army officials don’t expect immediate results from the sensors. There’s still a lot that scientists have yet to learn about the effect of intense blasts on the human body.
“The data collected and these sensors will go a long way to helping that research and possible future solutions,” O’Brien said.