WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio -- Your sweat is more valuable than you think, and now it can be stored, then analyzed by smartphone to give you a clear picture of the state of your body--all with a sensor that looks and wears like a high-tech Band-Aid.
The Air Force Research Laboratory's 711th Human Performance Wing, Signature Tracking for Optimized Nutrition and Training (STRONG) team, in collaboration with researchers from the University of Cincinnati's Novel Devices Laboratory, conducted the first successful human trials of a usable sweat sensor prototype, in an exercise lab at Wright-Patt, Feb. 11.
The trial took the joint team's research from testing hand-built sensor patches to testing actual production prototypes. According to 711 HPW researcher Dr. Joshua Hagen, STRONG team lead, the trial's success marks a major milestone by bring the sensor out of the lab and into real-world use.
"There are many things you can hand-build in the lab and get to work, but if you can't make it on a large scale, or if it's going to be incredibly expensive, then it isn't feasible," said Hagen.
Hagen's research partner, University of Cincinnati electrical engineering and computer systems professor, Jason Heikenfeld, director of the Novel Devices lab, joined up with the Air Force five years ago to research convenient ways to track Airman biometric responses to disease, medication, injury, and other physical stresses.
The results of the trial are promising, not only for future 711th research efforts, but for the Air Force and its sister services.
To be able to not only track the body's biomarkers (think electrolytes, metabolites, amino acids and proteins), but to have a practical, easy way to do it represents immediate application to troop safety, especially because the sensor monitors hydration and heat stress--two crucial metrics of concern during high-performance military training and missions.
The sensors have the size, shape and look of a Band-Aid and can be read with a smart-phone app, making them extremely user- and production-friendly. But the apparent simplicity is deceptive. Unlike the currently popular wearable electronic devices on the commercial market, which monitor sleep and movement data only, the sweat monitors track many of the same biomarkers that blood tests do--without the needle stick.
"We have the potential to be able to tell the person if they are in their optimal (hydration) range and what to do if they're not," said Hagen.
Hagen plans to gather more data by making the sensors available to a limited number of 2015 Air Force Marathon participants.
The team is already working on future sensor generations, which could conceivably measure more biomarkers like true physical exhaustion (sweat surrogates for blood lactate levels, for example), stress or fatigue.
More work is needed to expand the number and types of biomarkers the sensors can measure, but Hagen and Heikenfeld believe the technology--and the partnership--is a bio-tracking game changer.
"How to speak to the AFRL partnership? Simple, we would not be here were it not for the partnership," said Heikenfeld. "With (the 711th) we have a shared vision of creating program of absolute excellence in sweat sensing technology. The relationship has worked wonderfully because we have complementary technical expertise, which fills in all the research and development gaps."
"It's a very unique and exciting partnership to have with such a talented group at UC, and the future is pretty bright," said Hagen.
Bio-tracking: a continuing challenge
Tracking biometrics has such mission potential that AFRL has initiated the Signature Tracking for Optimized Nutrition and Training program, or STRONG, to team up 711th researchers in physiology, bio-signatures, physical training, nutrition and supplementation and sensors. The team's research takes a holistic approach to optimizing human performance.
STRONG is currently focused on measuring and assessing cognitive and physical performance bio-signatures in order to generate ways to develop training, supplementation and technology for performance enhancement. Research is addressing everything from cooling technologies to ketone supplementation, to linking cognition and exertion, to name only a few.
"There is a really fun mindset of the STRONG team that focuses on thinking outside the box, making things happen, and above all, the focus on the operator first and foremost, " said Hagen. "What will impact pararescuemen in the field today? How can we connect directly with operators to improve them today?"