It would be easy to assume that armed forces are equipped up to the eyes with wearable technology. We’re regularly told about the latest trails to test augmented helmets, smart vests and other tech among the military, and DARPA, the US military’s research arm, regularly publishes proposals for gadgets that are so far into the realm of science fiction that you’d be forgiven for thinking they were just making it up as they went along.
But out on the front lines, very little of the headline-grabbing tech is actually in widespread use, and it’s likely to be some time before our own militaries have wearables to rival their fictional counterparts in Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare.
So why is it that wearable tech is taking so long to reach its military potential?
Lightening the load
One of the most commonly presented arguments for increasing wearable technology in the military is its potential to lighten the load of dismounts – soldiers working on foot – however, this is, according to one military expert, an exaggerated issue.
“Actually over the last twelve years of operations in Afghanistan, average load is about 55-60kg, which nonetheless is still quite a lot, but if you look over the last 300, 400 years of warfare the dismount has always carried lots of stuff, and actually pound-for-pound on the field of Agincourt, men-at-arms carried more or less the same weight-wise, distribution over the body, as soldiers in Afghanistan,” explained Max Lowe, from the UK Ministry of Defence’s Defence Science and Technology Laboratory, at a talk at the Wearable Technology Show.
Nonetheless, when it comes to battery-related weight wearable technology does have the potential to help.
“In some specialist roles 12kg of the total weight is battery, and anything we can do to centralise that, either battery for torso, head and weapon, which is often how we think about the dismounted soldier, is a useful thing,” he added. “E-textiles in particular are a good way of distributing power and data across the body, minimising the snag hazard and the dislike of wires that you often get with dismounts.”
Clothes that go above and beyond
Of course, military tech needs to do more than just effectively distribute battery weight. The technologies will vary depending on the application, but the amount of wear a device can handle is always paramount.
“Textiles help to lose weight, but you have to have equipment that can last for hours without scrunching too much,” explained Gilbert Réveillon, international managing director of wearable component developer Cityzen Science, who has previous experience working with the UK’s MOD.
Military tech has to be worn for hours on end, and so needs to be able to take a far higher level of abuse while remaining fully functional
Technology designed for fitness applications, for example, typically does not have to take such things into account as such garments are usually only worn for up to an hour or so. Military tech, meanwhile, has to be worn for hours on end, and so needs to be able to take a far higher level of abuse while remaining fully functional.
“You have to find the proper textile that doesn’t create additional stress,” said Réveillon, adding that both the quality of hardware and the data collected needed to be considered. And for that, the designers need to have a firm idea of what soldiers want from their tech.
“You try to have a clear understanding of what you endure, and what you do with this endurance,” added Réveillon.
Then there’s the matter of upkeep and testing, which needs to be possible in remote and potentially poorly resourced locations.
“It’s going to withstand very heavy use, and potentially needs to be washable as well, but if you have lots of peripherals you have to detach prior to washing then stuff gets lost,” said Michael Reidbord , a professor at New York’s Fasion Institute of Technology and a seasoned industrial wearables expert. “How do you test it all? Because if it’s critical equipment it needs to be tested prior to a shift, and there are issues around that, and then clearly there’s a complex back-end which has to be set up.”
Ultimately military wearables need to be able to perform above and beyond wearables in other applications, and that makes developing them a less appealing prospect for companies.
Accessing the market
Even if a company does decide to take on the additional challenges associated with developing military wearables, there is still the issue of actually accessing the market.
“There are two different ways of entering the market,” explained Mark Bernstein, CEO of Wearable Technologies, which develops washable wearables that have been used by the German military. “One is to aim at the very top, spend several years developing your product in the knowledge that you can then trickle down into other larger markets, but you have the risk that a smaller company would go bust in the process; or you start lower and you learn and you build your loadout and the reliability of the products up from the bottom, which is the approach we’ve taken.”
Either of these approaches is financially gruelling, so it’s perhaps no surprise that many companies, including Bernstein’s, opt to cover multiple wearables markets rather than put all their eggs in the military basket.
However, this doesn’t explain why very large tech companies don’t consider the market to be worth entering. The reason for that is, according to Lowe, down to how long it takes for anything to actually get done.
Images courtesy of US Army
“It’s no secret that military procurement is painfully slow, because it was set up for big bits of steel that last for 50 years, and that’s not necessarily the best way of thinking about smart e-textiles that are developing so much faster,” he said.
“Because of that we encounter these hard stops from big companies. The great example is Nett Warrior, which is a situational awareness device based on the Samsung smartphone. The US Army procured it, they’re fielding it, and it’s out with the US Army at the minute.
“But they approached Apple originally, and said ‘we want to equip the entire US Army with an Apple smartphone, we want to wipe the software, re-write the software, but it needs to look and feel the same so all the 17 and 18 year olds can pick it up and use it’. And Apple said ‘we can provide the entire US Army with working smartphones in four days, and then you’re not going to buy any more again for the next ten years, so why would we ever go into business with you for that?’”
The comparatively small contracts that militaries require in effect stop large companies from getting involved in the area, and that stops some technologies from finding their way onto the battlefield.
“That’s one of our big problems; actually the military market is quite small in the grand scheme of smart technology,” said Lowe. “I think that’s one of the big counters we’re getting up to: the jump between academia and industry is often filled by these big global leaders in industry and not by the MOD. And that’s probably a good thing in terms of R&D speed, but it means it’s more of a challenge for people like me who then try and bring it back so we can use it.”
Too much information
Despite all the challenges associated with developing wearables for the military, they are still likely to see growing use in the field, albeit more slowly than many of us would expect.
However, there are issues around the continuous monitoring of soldiers and other personnel – one of the most commonly lauded applications of wearables in the military – that may prove to be a stumbling block in their adoption.
“These individuals, all of them at some point will be required to go above and beyond their call of duty in whatever format that may or may not be,” explained Lowe. “And then you have to make the decision: if you monitor the health of these individuals and then they push themselves harder than they should do according to some bit of medical reporting written about them whenever they joined, then who makes the decision whether or not they do that?”
And worse, as Lowe explained, if that person then dies or is seriously injured as a result of those actions, who would be to blame?
“I would think that when we start monitoring people who push themselves really, really hard, there might be an air of ‘I don’t really want to know about that’,” he said. “I want to speak to the bloke, or the woman, and say ‘can you do it? Yes or no’ and then make the decision, rather than use the computer to tell me. I think that’s an interesting problem.”