In July last year, two Territorial Army (TA) soldiers collapsed and died while participating in a strenuous exercise in the mountainous Brecon Beacons in Wales on one of the hottest days of the year. Four others were hospitalised. While the Ministry of Defence could not confirm the nature of the drill, the same locale is used in selection exercises for TA Special Forces, which include a gruelling march covering 14 miles in four hours carrying a weapon and equipment weighing 14kg.
Such training exercises by their very nature need to be physically and mentally demanding and take place in remote environments while being transparently supervised, if at all. But the Brecon Beacons tragedy highlighted that the welfare of armed services personnel needs to be monitored to ensure their wellbeing.
The mobile human monitoring division of Equivital believes it has come up with a solution that not only ensures the safety of soldiers, but, using physiological data from external sensors, provides a wealth of 'big data' that can be drilled down to track performance and well-being both in real-time and over time. The company's Black Ghost training system, developed in collaboration with international military bodies, collects data from real-world training and operational scenarios to identify the human effects of being in demanding terrains and environments.
Ekta Sood, head of product marketing at Equivital, says: "As we came up against these challenging training scenarios, we found the question that was trying to be answered was 'how do we know what impact the training we are giving to the soldier is having on the actual performance?'"
Equivital set out with three goals for Black Ghost. The first was to fill the capability gap of a military training system that could objectively measure changes in human performance produced by different training methods. The second was to provide real-time monitoring of soldiers in a training ground from a duty of care perspective, identifying the onset of risk factors such as heat stress, within the limits of it still being a military training exercise. Finally, Black Ghost will collect data over time to create more intelligence with which to improve future military training.
Sensors and sensibility
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Black Ghost uses data sent from the Equivital EQ02 LifeMonitor which incorporates a range of sensors in what looks like a shoulder holster worn next to the skin.
"It measures multi-parameter physiological signals from the heart, the respiratory function, cardiac data, movement, energy expenditure, and temperature and thermo-regulation," says Sood. "The data, it can be intelligently processed at the back end or in the sensor itself."
The data can be communicated flexibly, but in the military training environment the main route is via a data-capable military radio that sends information to a base-station and then on to an Equivital adapter which uploads data into the Black Ghost database. It can also work over proprietary or GSM mobile telephone networks or via Wi-Fi. The data remains secure in the localised network and data from the sensor is anonymised so it is unintelligible in transit.
"We are working with homeland security groups at the moment to specify systems where data might get centralised over multiple sites and users," Sood adds. "In that situation we have all the standard network security protocols in place along with HIPAA [US Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act] compliance."
Black Ghost also incorporates data from external sources, such as GPS to identify the position of the soldier, weather conditions including temperature and humidity and other sensors being used in the training scenario, such as motion detectors. It also enables geo-fencing, which identifies when particular subjects breach a border so action can be taken, as would be used in navigational training exercises. This can additionally be used to spot when a soldier strays too far from the training area.
"It's one of the things that sets off Black Ghost's alarms," says Sood. "Soldiers getting lost in exercises like navigational field studies costs time and effort."
Other situations that set off alarms includes heat stress, identified when a thermal threshold is breached, and falls, detected by motion sensors in the LifeMonitor.
While Equivital intends Black Ghost for any military units that carry out free-ranging training exercises and wants to be able to measure the safety and human performance of recruits, it has initially attracted the interest of the Special Forces sector.
Dashboard data drill-down
The configurable user interface for the exercise coordinator takes the form of a dashboard view that displays data tailored for the individual and the security privileges they have to see certain data. Important high-level data is presented first, then the user can drill down for information on specific individuals, analysing data gathered over time, comparing one session to another to see if the training has helped a trainee improve his performance, for example.
Black Ghost is built with application programming interfaces (APIs) - instructions that specify how software components should interact - at multiple levels, so a customer could choose to interface different elements with their own training systems.
"We have one Special Operations group which is using the Back Ghost database with its own front end," says Sood. "But where possible, we like to get involved with the whole system."
Similarly, with some adaptation, much of the Black Ghost functionality could eventually be used in battlefield command and control systems.
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The data difference
The production version of Black Ghost has been available for twelve months, following three and a half years' development effort for the software and six years' work on the sensor. Black Ghost is complementary to current training systems but with greater emphasis on providing objective human performance data and safety information, something Sood describes as new and necessary.
While it cannot disclose details, the company has some pioneering elite military customers in the US, some early adopters in Europe and is working with potential Asian customers and a larger group in the US, offering a tailored deployment in each case.
"While largely off-the-shelf, in the early cycles of a product, you want to understand needs and ensure that, for example, the communications infrastructure that is in place in going to work for the kind of customers that you are deploying it for," explains Sood.
The next release is due towards the end of 2014, which will change the way in which Black Ghost can be deployed. It will also offer a more configurable front-end to enable more intelligence to be easily implanted in the system and deliver improved analytics. At its heart will remain Equivital's key goal to provide thermoregulatory and heat stress monitoring to ensure soldier well-being while measuring human performance in the real world rather than in the laboratory.
Soldiers will always be pushed to their limits on the battlefield. Innovations such as Black Ghost help ensure effective training prepares them fully without ever going beyond those limits.