NATICK, Mass. -- Soldiers compete. Science wins.
Data gathered by researchers from the U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development Command Soldier Center at the Best Warrior Competition may provide invaluable insights into Soldier performance and help advance a groundbreaking human performance program called MASTR-E.
MASTR-E stands for Measuring and Advancing Soldier Tactical Readiness and Effectiveness. The MASTR-E program, which is being led by the CCDC Soldier Center, measures, predicts, and enhances close combat performance with sensors, data-driven decision aids, and targeted interventions to maximize Soldier lethality. CCDC SC is working with several military, academic, and industry partners on the effort.
"The goal of MASTR-E is to measure Soldier cognitive and physical performance under operationally relevant conditions to enhance Soldier lethality on the battlefield," said Douglas Tamilio, director of the CCDC Soldier Center.
CCDC SC is dedicated to using science and technology to ensure America's warfighters are optimized, protected, and lethal. CCDC SC supports all of the Army's Modernization efforts, with the Soldier Lethality and Synthetic Training Environment Cross Functional Teams being the CCDC SC's chief areas of focus. The center's science and engineering expertise are combined with collaborations with industry, DOD, and academia to advance Soldier and squad performance. The center supports the Army as it transforms from being adaptive to driving innovation to support a Multi-Domain Operations Capable Force of 2028 and a MDO Ready Force of 2035. CCDC SC is constantly working to strengthen Soldiers' performance to increase readiness and support for warfighters who are organized, trained, and equipped for prompt and sustainable ground combat.
The Best Warrior Competition held in October at Fort Lee, Virginia, provided an ideal setting for CCDC SC researchers to gather data. The competition included physical and cognitive challenges that reflect modern missions and operating environments.
Next-generation biosensors being investigated by CCDC SC for large studies, such as MASTR-E, were used during the Best Warrior Competition.
"As part of MASTR-E, we are investigating novel biosensors," said Tad Brunyé, Ph.D., a senior cognitive scientist in CCDC SC's Cognitive Performance Branch, part of CCDC SC's Soldier Performance Optimization Directorate. "These are sweat-based biosensors that pick up on specific analytes (chemicals undergoing analysis) in sweat that can be indicative of things like stress, fatigue states, and muscle overuse. This gives you a real-time understanding of what is happening to the body under these conditions of high cognitive and physical demands."
Brunyé explained that in addition to performance data, researchers gathered important information about the sensors themselves.
"So, it boils down to the form, fit, function, and predictive value of the sensors that we tested," said Brunyé. "Are they comfortable? Do they stay on during high intensity exercise? These types of things are fundamental. Then we had to determine how to unobtrusively gather data from the sensors without influencing performance. How do you use imaging and machine vision to physically gather the data from the sensors, and then how do you interpret the data? Are any changes in sweat-borne analytes reliably related to performance outcomes in these types of events and eventually in training? Do these sensors tell you something valuable about predicting performance outcomes?"
The sensors are considered novel because there are very few existing ways to determine the physiological or cognitive status of individuals and small teams. The sensors used at the Best Warrior Competition happened to be focused on sweat, but CCDC SC researchers are also investigating sensors that focus on saliva or interstitial fluid (fluid located in a certain organ or tissue).
Brunyé explained that CCDC SC scientists have been investigating novel biosensors with biomedical engineers through the Center for Applied Brain and Cognitive Sciences, or the Center for ABCS. The center is a cooperative research initiative between CCDC SC and Tufts University's School of Engineering. The biosensor engineering effort leverages the expertise of world-renowned Tufts biomedical engineer, Professor Fiorenzo Omenetto, Ph.D.
"These sweat sensors have been repeatedly iterated upon and tested in the laboratory," said Brunyé. "Through those laboratory experiments we have a pretty good indication that these sensors are selective, sensitive and reliable, but this was our first opportunity to test them in the field. The competition was the perfect opportunity to use the sensors in an environment that is a somewhat controlled test of real tasks."
Sensors were used at the competition when Soldiers were engaged in the Army Combat Fitness Test, or ACFT. The ACFT provided an excellent opportunity for data collection since it is highly controlled, repeatable and reliable.
"The ACFT is designed to reflect the physical and mental demands Soldiers face during operations," said Brunyé. "We can get quantitative metrics not just from the biosensors but from the Soldiers' performance outcomes on the task. Every task Soldiers do as part of the ACFT is quantified, providing us with very specific performance outcome data."
Brunyé and other researchers placed the sensors on the Soldiers before they started their warmups for the ACFT.
"There were 22 Soldiers," said Brunyé. "We put one biosensor on each of the Soldiers and then we sent them off to the ACFT, where they started their warmups. The first ACFT phase tests strength, balance, flexibility, agility, and muscular endurance. Then after this first phase they do a two-mile run to challenge aerobic endurance. This phased approach to the ACFT gave us the opportunity to get baseline measures on the biosensors, then reassess those measures after the two phases and begin to understand how sweat composition changes over time."
The three measurements could then be used to predict Soldier performance outcomes on each of the tasks.
"You can find out about individuals that may be overusing their muscles, individuals who may be reaching their own thresholds for physical fatigue and, therefore, may not be exceling at the tasks," said Brunyé. "Others may not be showing as much expression of analytes in the biosensors and actually may not be overworked. These individuals might be able to excel at the tasks relative to their peers."
Brunyé explained that the research involves measuring both chemical physiology and digital physiology.
"So your ability to measure chemical physiology is complemented by our existing ability to measure digital physiology," said Brunyé. "Digital physiology includes things such as using a bio-harness where you can measure heart rate, heart-rate variability, respiration rate and other important measures. Digital physiology can be complemented by chemical physiology, which is an emerging discipline at the intersection of biomedical engineering, physiology, and human performance."
The information gathered during the competition could potentially be used to understand how individuals physiologically, mentally, and emotionally react to a challenge and to stressors, as well as how these stressors may impact overall health. The data could also be used to find ways to prevent fatigue, to prevent injury, and to prevent cognitive performance decline due to prolonged physical or mental exertion.
"By better understanding how individuals respond to stress and adversity you can proactively adapt their context to suit their needs and help them sustain performance," said Brunyé. "This can be done through adaptive training, nutritional supplementation, next-generation information technologies such as augmented reality, and emerging neuroenhancement techniques such as electrical brain stimulation. It's about leveling the playing field and ensuring that every Soldier can reach their physical and mental potential, increasing combat readiness and lethality."
The data gathered and its analysis could have a huge impact on future research.
"Next-generation biosensing could represent a big leap forward in the MASTR-E program, laying the foundation for a digital and chemical sensor suite capability to provide leaders with real-time indications of individual and team status and future potential, for application in both training and field contexts," said Brunyé.
Note: In the future, the advancement of MASTR-E may further benefit from a new institute dedicated to studying Soldier and squad performance. The CCDC Soldier Center and the U.S. Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine are leading the development of the Soldier Squad Performance Research Institute, or S2PRINT, focusing on human performance optimization. Leading-edge studies, including MASTR-E, will benefit from the creation of S2PRINT, which will empower CCDC SC's and USARIEM's world-class scientists and engineers with a controlled, cutting-edge, and mission-relevant environment in which to perform applied studies to uncover ways to optimize Soldier and squad performance and lethality and enhance combat readiness. Research will focus on the individual Soldier's and the squad's cognitive, social, physiological, physical, and nutrition-based performance. S2PRINT will be located at the Natick Soldier Systems Center and is expected to become operational in the Spring of 2023.