WEST KINGSTON, R.I. (Aug. 10, 2017) -- At first glance, the 300 paratroopers competing at this year's Leapfest on Aug. 6 weren't quite sure what to think of the interesting-looking chest harnesses, as they noticed the four Natick Soldiers strapping them around their ribcages before donning the rest of their uniforms, static-lines and parachutes.
It wasn't until speaking to them that the paratroopers learned that the four Soldiers were from the U.S. Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine, or USARIEM, and they were donning Physiological Status Monitors, or PSMs.
It was also USARIEM's first time participating in Leapfest, the largest static-line parachuting competition in the world. The team members, among them Col. Raymond Phua, commander of USARIEM, wore PSM systems during the jump in order to bring awareness to how USARIEM "brings science to the warfighter."
Alexander Welles, a USARIEM research physical scientist who was in charge of setting up the PSMs for the team, explained that the PSM is an example of wearable technology developed over years, guided by physiological data collected from multiple USARIEM studies. Welles said the PSM can track a Soldier's physiological condition as he or she operates in extreme conditions and during intense activities.
"PSM systems can generally provide a lot of information that indicates the kind of thermal and physiological load an individual is experiencing," said Welles from USARIEM's Biophysics and Biomedical Modeling Division. "The PSM records Soldiers' real-time, minute-by-minute heart rate, blood-oxygen saturation levels, respiration rate, skin temperature, core body temperature and body position. It can also receive internal body temperature data from an ingestible thermometer pill."
Maj. Nicholas Barringer, one of USARIEM's jumpers, explained that while the PSMs were novelties, they also allowed the USARIEM researchers a first-time opportunity to collect data during a jump to actually document physiological responses during an airborne operation.
"The PSMs were a conversational piece, but we were also able to collect data from the jumps we did," Barringer said. "One of the few times the PSM had ever been used with jumping was with Felix Baumgarter, who made a world record for the highest freefall jump. USARIEM was one of the first to use PSMs in a static-line airborne operation in the Army. We collected data from the practice jump, as well as the competition jumps, to see the heart rate, respiration, core temperature and all of these other physiological measurements that, up until this time, have never been looked at before during an airborne mission."
While leaping with the PSM during an airborne mission is a first for the Soldier researchers, years of studies have shown that military leaders can use PSMs to adjust missions in unpredictable, extreme environments, from hot, to cold, to hypoxic conditions at high altitudes.
By providing accurate physiological information on individual warfighters, leaders can make timely, critical training and mission decisions. Welles said that mission planners are able to do this with PSMs because the technology "provides a base to deploy USARIEM's predictive and optimization algorithms, particularly the Estimated Core Temperature algorithm, or ECTemp, which mission planners can use to mitigate the risk of thermal injury."
The ECTemp uses mathematics to provide accurate estimates of core body temperature simply by analyzing heart rate changes over time. With the ECTemp incorporated into the PSM, military leaders have an easier, non-invasive way of identifying Soldiers who are at risk of heat illness.
"The most value we get from the PSM is the algorithm USARIEM-developed ECTemp," Barringer said. "Now, mission planners and medics can see how hot a Soldier is getting, and they can intervene before a Soldier becomes a heat casualty. This is huge because if you look at the cost of having a heat casualty, and they have to go to the hospital, you're going to take that person out of the fight. But even the economics to treat a person with heat stress is another thing to consider. So now there's a device to help us get ahead of that curve and possibly prevent thermal injuries."
According to Barringer, the fact that the PSM is able to accurately collect this real-time data in a non-invasive way that doesn't interfere with a Soldier's comfort, mobility or safety is a plus too.
"About 300 paratroopers were watching us put on these devices," Barringer said. "Then they came over and talked to us, and we showed them what data the PSMs could collect and how light the piece of equipment feels. This is another concern because when a Soldier is already carrying all of this equipment, he or she should not carry more because it can weigh him or her down. They were really impressed with how light the PSM was. Having worn it twice all day, I can say that you forget it's there."
Clear, blue skies greeted Phua, Barringer, Maj. Joseph Kardouni and Sgt. 1st Class Nathan Kent as they leapt from the CH-47 Chinook helicopter at 1500 feet above the ground and sailed in their parachutes to land as closely as possible to the "x" marked in the landing zone at the University of Rhode Island. Judges timed how long it took jumpers to run from their landing spot to the "x" marking the landing zone. Jumpers competed for both team and individuals honors.
Out of the 70 U.S. and international airborne community teams competing, USARIEM placed 32nd with a team landing time of 2 minutes, 5 seconds.
It was a history-making leap for these scientists in the sky. Even more so, it was a history-making moment for the researchers to collect physiological data in uncharted territory.
"Participation in Leapfest provided USARIEM with a strategic platform to market our science and technology capabilities to the operational force while bringing "science to the warfighter" at 18 feet per second," Phua said. "This was an ideal venue to promote the U.S. Army Medical Research and Materiel Command and USARIEM, as well as the role of military operational medicine in human performance optimization and contributions to readiness."