DOD Investing in Wearable Technology That Could Rapidly Predict Disease

Department of Defense | Apr. 28, 2023

By David Vergun

The Defense Innovation Unit, also known as DIU, in partnership with the private sector, has developed a wearable device that was highly successful during the COVID-19 pandemic in identifying infections. 

 

An airman's arm is pictured wearing a digital watch.
Wearable Technology Air Force Airman Katiha Falcon wears a watch at Hill Air Force Base, Utah, Dec. 3, 2020. The wearable technology is part of a study with the Defense Innovation Unit that will allow detection of illnesses such as COVID-19 within 48-hours. Photo By:Cynthia Griggs, Air Force

The Defense Department is looking to expand its use to other infectious disease detection in service members, which leaders say will aid in readiness, said Jeff Schneider, program manager for the Rapid Assessment of Threat Exposure project, also known as the RATE program. 

DOD is extending the RATE project, initially started with the Defense Threat Reduction Agency in 2020, to new user groups after leading a successful prototype during COVID-19, he said. 

The DIU's RATE project uses a powerful, predictive artificial intelligence algorithm that was trained using hospital-acquired data from monitored cases of COVID-19, he said. 

The algorithm leverages biometric data from commercial grade off-the-shelf wearables. The RATE algorithm enabled early detection of infectious diseases up to 48 hours before symptoms appeared. The algorithm, which, in some cases, predicted infections up to six days prior to onset, and included asymptomatic cases, was featured in a 2022 study published by the journal "Nature's Scientific Reports," highlighting the efficacy of the algorithm-powered wearables to aid military readiness, Schneider said. 

"The DOD invests heavily in maintaining the readiness of its workforce to conduct essential missions. However, the risk of infectious disease, like COVID-19, has long been an unpredictable variable. With RATE, the DOD can use commercial wearables to noninvasively monitor a service member's health and provide early alerts to potential infection before it spreads," Schneider said.  

He further noted that this funding provides a bridge that allows the department to leverage this emerging technology within a program of record. 

RATE was one of the first 10 pilot programs funded through the Congressionally established Accelerate the Procurement and Fielding of Innovative Technologies initiative to fill critical capability gaps. 

With $10 million in additional funds, RATE will build on its 2020-21 success which demonstrated that wearable technology could predict COVID-19 and other infections 2.3 days prior to diagnostic testing. The effort was transitioned in 2022 to DIU to continue the effort after the initial success of the project, he said. 

 

A group of sailors run together.
Run Time Sailors from Naval Mobile Construction Battalion 3 begin a 1.5-mile run during the Physical Fitness Assessment at Naval Base Ventura County, Port Hueneme, Calif, Dec. 12, 2012.
Photo By:Petty Officer 1st Class Chris Fahey, Navy

With the additional funding, DIU is adding 4,500 more users across the department. One group will be the Air Combat Command's first sergeants. That command's new Diamond Care Initiative Plan is geared toward preserving the health and welfare of its 360 first sergeants, who will be issued wearables to better gauge their overall health and vital signs, said Air Force Maj. Michael Vernale, wing director of Talent Management and Assessments at Fort Meade, Maryland. 

"First sergeants serve as the belly button to all the organizations in the U.S. Air Force, and this technology can improve their lives and the lives of the airmen they serve," Vernale said. 

"Technology has finally produced a product that will increase overall health and wellness to a community of first sergeants who many times prioritize their people ahead of their own health," said Air Force Chief Master Sgt. Christopher Gradel, Air Combat Command. 

Philips, a technology company, is involved in the algorithm development and has expanded its efforts on a global scale to accelerate commercialization and scaling. 

"Because our algorithm is device agnostic, we can use biomarker data from any commercial grade, off-the-shelf wearable. We then run those markers against our clinical data sets in the cloud to create a RATE wellness score. The score has proven to be indicative of onset of infections. We can offer it through a licensing model to anyone who wants to add this capability to their device or as a stand-alone service," said Navin Natoewal, head of integrated technology solutions at Philips. "Not only do they get AI that has gone through several years of field testing and a peer-reviewed study, it is a cost-effective way to add the technology, while we continue to expand the data sets and the research working with leading academic institutions." 

 

Soldiers do sit-ups.
Physical Fitness Test Soldiers from the U.S. Army Medical Command participate their semi-annual physical fitness test on May 5, 2019, at Fort Belvoir, Va.
Photo By:Staff Sgt. David Meyer, Army

"The plan is for RATE to be device agnostic," added RATE's Schneider, but the current deployment of wearables will include Garmin watches and Oura rings. As the Philips-DIU team continues to prove out the new dataflow, the effort aims to add three additional popular wearable devices. The 11,000 former RATE users will also be able to re-affiliate with the projects if they still have the hardware."  

The Food and Drug Administration has determined that RATE is classified as a general wellness device.