Wearable Sensors for Assessing Airborne Hazards

The US Department of Defense is investigating the possibility of deploying wearable sensors to monitor the exposure of service personnel to dangerous toxins, thereby superseding current static detection systems.

Wearable Sensors for Assessing Airborne Hazards.

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During deployments, service personnel may be exposed to airborne hazards such as open burn pits. The US Department of Defense is keen to monitor the effects of these exposures.

We’re very interested in wearables. The reason is because our emphasis, our focus really needs to be on individual exposure monitoring…If we can’t figure out what the dose of the exposure was and what they were exposed to, then it’s very difficult to capture their response.

Dr. Terry Rauch, Acting Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Health Readiness Policy and Oversight

A Brief Primer on Wearable Sensors

Wearable technology encompasses textiles or devices that are worn close to (or on) the surface of the skin where sensors monitor, analyze and transmit physiological data, including heart rate, blood pressure and biochemical activity. Combined with wearables such as caps, watches, shirts and glasses, wearable sensors deliver a wide range of capabilities.

In the 1990s, for example, a team at the MIT Media Lab developed “smart clothing” that continually monitored a user’s physiological condition. In Ireland, the Tyndall National Institute developed a remote patient monitoring system that evaluated the quality of data produced by remote sensors.

Wearable technology comprises three elements:

  • Hardware that collects physiological data
  • Hardware and software that relay that data to a remote monitoring system
  • Software that analyzes that data

Advances in microelectronics, sensor technology, telecommunication and data analysis have driven the development of wearable technology. Further advances in materials science have facilitated the integration of these technologies into garments and textiles.

Of particular importance is the development of microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) technology which has enabled the miniaturization of sensors. Moreover, AI-based data analysis techniques such as pattern recognition have enabled advanced wearable sensor applications.

Biochemical sensors, in particular, have generated a lot of interest in wearable technologies. These types of sensors present the most challenging designs as they require the collection and analysis of complex biochemical data.

They not only monitor the biochemical activity of the user but also monitor levels of chemical compounds in the atmosphere. These are useful when working in hazardous environments, for example.

One example of biochemical sensing technology is The ProeTEX project which is developing nano-engineered smart textiles for use by emergency and disaster relief personnel. One of their garments integrates a CO2 sensor with other sensors that monitor environmental and body temperature, blood oxygen saturation, and other vital signs.

The system not only warns users of potential danger but also relays that information to a control center in real-time.

Building the Wearable Devices of the Future

The US Department of Defense has been working in close collaboration with the Department of Veterans Affairs on a suite of tools to help healthcare providers better understand service personnels’ medical history, particularly in relation to their exposure to dangerous chemicals during their deployments.

The Individual Longitudinal Exposure Record is one of their proposals which is expected to be deployed in 2023. It matches service personnels’ deployment history — i.e., location history — against databases that document exposures to risk, thus speeding up healthcare professionals’ access to critical clinical data.

In addition to wearables, we need to understand more about how the individual responds to environmental exposures. What risks do they bring [and] other background lifestyle factors, such as smoking a pack a day before you deploy, [as well as] other lifestyle factors or even what genetic background individuals bring.

We need to understand those because they’re going to have an impact, and science isn’t there, yet, but we’re pursuing it.

Dr. Terry Rauch, Acting Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Health Readiness Policy and Oversight

Wearable sensors are already being seriously considered for use in the US submarine fleet, with both the Army and Air Force expressing an interest.

References and Further Reading

Heikenfeld, J., et al., (2018) Wearable sensors: modalities, challenges, and prospects. Lab on a Chip, [online] Issue 2, 217-248 Available at: https://pubs.rsc.org/en/content/articlelanding/2018/lc/c7lc00914c

Patel, S., et al. (2012) A review of wearable sensors and systems with application in rehabilitation. Journal of NeuroEngineering and Rehabilitation, [online] 9, 21 Available at: https://jneuroengrehab.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/1743-0003-9-21

Magenes, G., et al., (2011) The ProeTEX prototype: a wearable integrated system for physiological & environmental monitoring of emergency operators. [online] Available at: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/274064894_The_ProeTEX_prototype_a_wearable_integrated_system_for_physiological_environmental_monitoring_of_emergency_operators

Lopez, C. (2022) Wearable Sensors May Be Future Option for Assessing Toxin Exposures [online] Available at: https://www.defense.gov/News/News-Stories/Article/Article/2972573/wearable-sensors-may-be-future-option-for-assessing-toxin-exposures/

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William Alldred

Written by

William Alldred

William Alldred is a freelance B2B writer with a bachelor’s degree in Physics from Imperial College, London. William is a firm believer in the power of science and technology to transform society. He’s committed to distilling complex ideas into compelling narratives. Williams’s interests include Particle & Quantum Physics, Quantum Computing, Blockchain Computing, Digital Transformation and Fintech.


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