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Wearable monitoring device nets 711 HPW team big prize in AFRL Challenge

WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio – The Air Force Research Laboratory’s Small Business Office has awarded $100,000 to a team from AFRL’s 711th Human Performance Wing to further enhance wearable monitoring devices designed for survival training exercises. Team members from the 711 HPW completed initial design and software development activities in response to an Innovation Pipeline program called the AFRL Challenge.  

The Survival Health Awareness Responders Kit, or SHARK, team far exceeded the challenge by conducting field tests with end users. Team members traveled to Camp Bullis near San Antonio, Texas and lived with Air Force instructors in tents for close to a week to test the monitoring devices on students.

Innovation Pipeline

The goal of the [Innovation Pipeline] initiative is to link research and development activities with specific technology applications and connect with end users, said Ryan Helbach, chief intrapreneur for AFRL.

Jack Blackhurst, executive director of AFRL, revealed three separate challenges in April. One of the challenges offered $100,000 to the first 10 teams that completed a sprint. 

Following this announcement, Helbach received numerous inquiries about the sprint, a problem solving method developed in Silicon Valley. While this industry best practice is used by Google and LEGO, the method is not widely utilized at AFRL. 

A sprint involves a small team that builds and tests a prototype in just five days, according to thesprintbook.com. A clearly defined process guides members from problem identification to tested solution. Benefits include increased productivity and early application of end user feedback.

Helbach said that the funding served as incentive to encourage teams to complete the challenges. The Innovation Pipeline team based this approach on the Freakonomics principle, which asserts that rewards can be used to elicit desired behaviors.

The 711 HPW team was among the first three to complete the challenge. Members conducted a design and software development sprint for a device that tracks the health and location of students during extended training exercises. The devices will be utilized by Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape, or SERE, specialists from the 336th Training Group out of Fairchild Air Force Base in Washington, who served as the team’s customer.

The End User

SERE specialists undergo rigorous training exercises to prove they are experts in survival and can serve as effective instructors. They must be able to react quickly to unexpected events and overcome obstacles. Candidates are selected during courses led by the 66th Training Squadron (TS) from Lackland Air Force Base. 

These exercises are held at Camp Bullis, a 28,000 acre site in Texas where the 711 HPW team conducted field tests with students. While considered a U.S. Army facility, the U.S. Air Force is the site’s second largest customer.

Leaders from the 711 HPW initially connected with the 336 TG during an immersion visit.  During an engagement at Fairchild Air Force Base, the 336 TG presented areas where they needed R&D solutions. The Commander of the Survival School, Col. John Groves, spoke of the need to infuse innovation in Air Force training programs, many of which hadn’t changed since the 1960s.

The need to monitor students during training exercises stemmed from a 2016 incident in which a candidate suffered a heat stroke during a six-hour solo exercise in 100-degree weather. Regular safety checks failed to detect the threat in time, so the Air Force opted to implement more proactive safety measures. Since AFRL had experience with wearable monitoring technology, the 711 HPW offered to develop a solution.

The Team

The SERE Health Awareness Responders Kit team, led by Dr. James Christensen, 1st Lt. David Feibus and Ted Harmer, began by identifying key customer requirements. The devices would need to determine heart rate, detect location, estimate core temperature and transmit data via long range communications. Christensen served as the overall team lead and provided technical expertise in physiology and metrics. He works in the Airman Systems Directorate as the product line lead for Airmen sensing and assessment.

“Going in, we knew we needed a broad range of skillsets,” said Christensen. He explained that to produce an effective system, the team needed experts in a variety of areas:  wearable devices, electronics, software development, communications, human factors, and physiology. With support from leadership and a highly engaged customer, the team easily recruited members who were eager to work, Christensen said.

“We pulled together capabilities from several different parts of the organization to assemble the sensors, the software to pull sensor data together and then the communications capability to then send that data and be able to monitor it continuously and remotely,” he said.

1st Lt. David Feibus oversaw the software development efforts. Currently, he is a software team lead and the Deputy Program Manager for BATMAN, an advanced technology demonstrator.

Ted Harmer managed CONOPS (concept of operations) and focused on ensuring that the devices didn’t interfere with the training exercises. He is the team lead for the medical readiness personal recovery training research team.

After the sprint exercise, SHARK team members studied similar programs that provide remote monitoring via Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and 4G LTE cellular connectivity. The team mapped out a solution to integrate these capabilities, and then developed low-power applications, middleware and networking capabilities. Smartphones were used as uplinks to satellite communications devices. 

Team members faced obstacles during the design and development process including unreliable cellphone service, rugged terrain and an inability to add infrastructure. The device also had to be comfortable, lightweight and durable to ensure utility and feasibility. 

Working closely with the customer, the team settled on an approach using off-the-shelf shirts with wearable sensors. Data collected is sent via satellite and then pulled from a server to enable real-time monitoring.

The AFRL Challenge

In terms of eligibility and approval, Helbach said that the challenge was fairly informal in structure.  The first ten teams to conduct a sprint, regardless of the outcome, would receive the prize money. The funds were intended for future technology development activities, he added.

These incentives were a pilot test to identify which challenge criteria produced the best results. One of the goals was simply to introduce industry practices to AFRL and to encourage their application. So far, four of the ten technology sprint prizes have been awarded. The remaining six teams are in various stages of completion. Throughout the Sprint process, Helbach maintained a hands off approach.

“The teams were provided with initial guidance and then set free to do the work,” he said.  However, they were given contacts at the Wright Brothers Institute if they needed help, he added.

The success achieved by [the SHARK team] stems from a number of factors, Helbach explained. They had a very specific problem, a dedicated customer, and a well-thought out solution that clearly addressed the issue at hand, he said.  The team met the goals set forth in this challenge and went above and beyond by conducting field tests, he added.

This success has greatly influenced the [Innovation Pipeline] mission, Helbach notes. The main question we sought to answer was whether these challenges would result in the desired behaviors. Based on this outcome, he asserts that the incentives were effective tools for motivating behavior.

“Rapid design and development - early interaction with customers - delivering innovative technologies to warfighters -meeting end user requirements in a fast and efficient manner. These are the types of activities we want to see more of within AFRL,” Helbach notes.

“We want to make it clear that the Air Force is responsive to the customer community,” he said.