September 18, 2017, by Brooke Faulkner – As with everything else, wearables in the military are not as straightforward as they are in the civilian sector. For most in the civilian workforce, the benefits of smart wristwear far outweigh the negatives.
However, the nature of both the intellectual and the physical work done by servicemembers makes things complicated. Servicemembers’ clothing has to go the extra mile, literally, and it can’t prohibit the safety or productivity of military personnel. That’s a tall order.
The Obstacles of Military Wearables
Several things get in the way of servicemembers utilizing wearables.
The first is the physical nature of their jobs. The average person has enough of a challenge not giving a Fitbit a run for it’s money. But the nature of a great many servicemembers’ jobs means that they’re crawling through the brush, they’re getting jet fuel on their hands, and they’re often gone from a charging source for far longer than is required for the average device.
The second problem presented is in the sensitive nature of the job. Any type of wearable capable of storing data (i.e. pictures,GPS, audio recording) is not going to be allowed in the spaces on bases/installations currently prohibiting the use of cell phones.
Additionally, wireless tech like Bluetooth can be sensed and jammed by enemy forces. Thus, it’s certainly not an effective tool.
“It is not uncommon for members of military and aerospace organizations, including warfighters in the field, to want (and wait exceedingly long for) the same high-tech devices they use in their personal lives to be accessible to them in their professional lives. Today’s aerospace and defense professionals want portable, powerful computing devices at their fingertips,” notes Stew Magnuson at National Defense.
Thus, while it is not totally impossible for service members to utilize the current options that are widely available, there are barriers that certainly make it an impractical choice.
The Current Use of Smart Wearables
The modern-day service member certainly benefits from the tech that we have, both in and out of the field. Deployments and detachments have evolved as tech has advanced.
Before, hand written letters came long after they were sent, often arriving out of order; now, most bases — even those in the most desolate of locations — have enough access to technology that troops can at least intermittently use the spotty wifi to call home. Plus, VR has been used to bring families as close as humanly possible to deployed troops.
Before, service members had heavy woolen uniforms that restricted movement; now, uniforms are in the works that will be smarter, lighter, and safer for service members.
Yet, we’re now at a point where it seems tech has evolved too fast for the military to keep pace.
So far, one of the most far-reaching ways wearable tech is being utilized is via VR wearables. For example, the military is using VR to simulate combat jumps.
“If I need to insert a SEAL team in Syria tomorrow night, all I need is a latitude and longitude,” Landon said. “So by the time they actually make the jump, they’ve already done it. There are no surprises,” notes David Landon, a retired SH-60 Seahawk pilot and president and CEO of Systems Technology Inc.
The Future Use of Smart Wearables
For a long time, the DOD was the cutting edge; they forged ahead of private companies. But in the modern age, this is less true. It’s less true because computing is now accessible to the masses, which means that the cutting edge has largely moved into the realm of the private sector. It’s happening in the offices of startups and entrepreneurs; it’s become as much a part of private enterprises as it has governmental ones.
Jessi Hempel of Wired says, “Sure, the Pentagon’s R&D arm, Darpa, continues to incubate forward-thinking ideas, but it’s planning for a distant future; across town at the Pentagon, many computers are still running software that was programmed in the 1980s—long before many of today’s soldiers were born.”
It’s happening, but it’s happening at a relatively slow pace. One of the major innovations still on the horizon is that of clothing wearables. As was mentioned above, the things that our troops wear have to be able to take a beating, especially given the fact that they’re worn around the clock for days on end.
Companies like Intelligent Textiles are contending to build the fabric of the future; the fabric that will actually hold up against the wear and tear that many people and machines can’t hold up against, and that will actually drive the armed forces forward.
“Equipment for the military is designed to stand up to stresses and strains that a consumer kit can only dream about, because in literal life-or-death situations, failure is not an option. But there are degrees of toughness: what a vehicle goes through is very different to what a person goes through,” notes Richard Trenholm, at CNET.
Smart textiles are where it’s at. They have the potential to lighten the literal load that a soldier must carry throughout the day, textiles and power packs weigh less than the traditional cables and battery packs that soldiers have traditionally had to carry.
Beyond mission planning, this tech can potentially take health tracking to the next level as well. The ability to foresee physical burn-out before it happens would be of priceless benefit both for both those on the frontlines and those supporting and commanding it.
Wearable Tech = Worthwhile Changes
Wearable smart tech can potentially bring meaningful changes that will not only make for better trained, more thoroughly prepared troops, but also safer, healthier troops. As the challenges are inevitably navigated, we will get closer to a military where the overall well-being of our troops takes a step in the right direction, and that’s good news for everyone.
Author Bio: Brooke Faulkner is a mother of two and writer based in Portland, Oregon. She loves anything to do with historical nonfiction.