The Pentagon is expanding the use of wearable fitness trackers to help predict outbreaks of infectious diseases such as COVID-19 as use of the technology, such as watches and rings, spreads in the military despite early security concerns.
The Defense Innovation Unit, an entity within the Pentagon focused on pairing commercially available technology with military uses, says that it had success during the pandemic in identifying infections by marrying an artificial intelligence algorithm with a commercial device.
The breakthrough allowed the DIU to predict sickness and transmissions days in advance. Its announcement comes as the Pentagon looks to apply wearable trackers across the force, not only to better detect diseases, but to bolster health through sleep, diet and exercise tracking.
The risk of infectious disease such as COVID-19 has long been an unpredictable variable when it comes to military readiness, Jeff Schneider, program manager for DIU's Rapid Assessment of Threat Exposure, or RATE, project, said in a release Friday.
"With RATE, the DoD can use commercial wearables to noninvasively monitor a service member's health and provide early alerts to potential infection before it spreads," Schneider said.
The project used COVID-19 data to teach an artificial intelligence algorithm to predict when a service member may start getting sick -- even up to 48 hours before symptoms appear.
The algorithm was then applied to off-the-shelf wearable fitness trackers to collect data that the AI could predict. The Pentagon claimed that the algorithm predicted asymptomatic cases and infections that were nearly a week away from becoming symptomatic.
"Because our algorithm is device agnostic, we can use biomarker data from any commercial-grade, off-the-shelf wearable. We then run those markers against our clinical data sets in the cloud to create a RATE wellness score," said Navin Natoewal, head of integrated technology solutions at Philips, a corporation that partnered with DIU, according to the release.
"The score has proven to be indicative of onset of infections," Natoewal said in the released statement. "We can offer it through a licensing model to anyone who wants to add this capability to their device or as a stand-alone service."
Beyond COVID-19, the program aims to predict and track outbreaks of other infectious diseases, as well using the health trackers.
The innovation comes as the Pentagon has been rapidly slapping bracelets, watches and rings onto service members' appendages to better assess sleep, food intake and exercise.
"Really, it gives a soldier awareness," one health and wellness instructor told the crowd at the U.S. Army Special Operation Command's capabilities exercise, or CAPEX, on Thursday at Fort Bragg, North Carolina -- an event meant to showcase current tactics, tools and innovations in the service's most elite units.
"Just giving a soldier awareness, like, 'Hey, man, drinking until midnight and then going to bed to get up next day doing PT' -- it really shows them this is the toll it had on your body," the instructor said during access to the exercise granted to Military.com and other press outlets.
The event showcased watches and devices like Oura rings, a commercially available ring that tracks biometrics and runs for about $500 on the civilian market.
The innovation has not come without its challenges, however, as some wearables have caused concern for defense leaders about whether they pose a significant security risk.
For example, in 2018, The Washington Post reported that commercial wearables were revealing sensitive locations and information about soldiers on U.S. military bases in the Middle East. A running app, which tracked troops as they went for a jog and then posted the routes online, was showing the outline of certain bases in Iraq and Syria, the publication reported.
Despite those concerns over GPS tracking -- and recent hacks of biometric and other data from federal databases -- the military appears to be enthusiastically adopting the technology in at least some cases.
The Pentagon said that the RATE program received $10 million more in funding after Congress established the "Accelerate the Procurement and Fielding of Innovative Technologies initiative."
The Defense Department expects to add 4,500 users across the force.
In another example, the Space Force -- the smallest and youngest military service -- is looking to use fitness trackers to replace traditional military physical fitness tests.
Those fitness wearables could be similar to Apple Watches or Fitbits and used to track exercise, diet and sleep.
-- Drew F. Lawrence can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @df_lawrence.