The Military’s Abandoned Quest for Smart Underwear
Augmented tighty whities would have monitored human vital signs
This article originally appeared at Motherboard.
Forget the high-tech exoskeletons usually depicted as the future of military wear. To really understand the next-gen potential of warfighter attire, you need to think a layer below the bullet-proof, titanium reinforced camo. You need to think about underwear.
Specifically, you need to think about a pair of briefs that appeared in the peer-reviewed journal Analyst in 2010. Despite their innocuous appearance, resembling a simple pair of tighty whities, those underwear could save your life. They were smart underwear — a kind of Apple Watch for your genitals.
Their story began with a $1.6 million grant from the Office of Naval Research in 2008. The winner was Joseph Wang, a UC San Diego nanoengineering professor, who wanted to design a “field hospital on a chip.” His wearable system would include sensors to monitor a soldier’s blood, sweat, and tears for signs of distress. It would also include stores of medication to treat the fighter’s injury.
Fast-forward to 2010, when Analyst published a paper revealing one possibility for that system: underwear. Researchers had printed chemical sensors inside the elastic waistband. The reason, according to a UC San Diego release, was that the band stays put even as its wearer moves around. It also makes contact with a steady stream of sweat.
Despite that promising research, the future of Wang’s warfighter undies isn’t immediately clear. The professor declined my interview request via email, writing that the project was “no longer priority.” He did not return multiple phone messages seeking clarification.
But research on other sub-uniform wearables, from chest straps to adhesive patches, is still alive, well, and receiving Department of Defense funds.
“Oftentimes a company will see the benefits of a product and then go ahead and deploy it without thinking the privacy implications through.”
Take the “self-powered biosensors” being developed by the Defense Health Agency. Instead of lining the elastic waistband of underpants, these sensors, which monitor a wearer’s vital signs, activity and sleep, sit closer to the chest. According to Lt. Col. Mark Mellott, the prototype looks like a strap.
Meanwhile, printed electronics company FlexTech Alliance received $75 million in DOD dollars in August. According to CTA Malcolm Thompson, the company isn’t looking specifically at underwear, but it is doing a lot of work with biomarker monitoring. Currently it’s developing a sweat patch, which Thompson says is particularly effective when placed on the lower back.
Unlike the hospital-on-a-chip, both devices are designed with preventative care in mind. For example, Mellott says that because the chest strap tracks sleeping patterns, it could be helpful for deciding who can safely go out in the field — or up in the air.
Thompson echoes him.
“The Department of Defense [has] isolated certain biomarkers which correlate, not just to fatigue and stress, but also to the ability to measure cognitive capabilities,” he says. “They’re very interested in applying that to a pilot or a drone pilot to make sure that they’re thinking clearly.”
And that — measuring a pilot’s cognitive abilities — is a good transition into the potentially scary side of biomarker monitoring. Whether collected through your underwear or a patch, your sweat is being converted into data. And as security consultant Rebecca Herold points out, the question then becomes: Who has access to that data?
“Could an insurance company get data collected from a solider during active duty?” she asks. “Is that going to affect the kind of health insurance or rate they could get? What happens if an employer down the road gets it?”
Those concerns aren’t lost on Mellott.
“We’re ensuring our end-users are aware of the responsibilities of DOD-specific devices — we have a lot more security protocols on our devices than a lot of other folks,” he says, adding that for testing, research and acquisition, the department has to answer specific questions about Protected Health Information (PHI), Personally Identifiable Information (PII) and overall security of data.
Still, Herold warns of a pattern she sees repeatedly with wearables right now, at least in the private sector.
“Oftentimes a company will see the benefits of a product and then go ahead and deploy it without thinking the privacy implications through,” she says.
That would be troubling if your biometric device circled your wrist. It would be more troubling if it came from your underwear.
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