The Army Wants To Implant Body Sensors Into Combat Soldiers

This biosensor could monitor soldiers' vital stats in real-time

Photo Illustration: Diana Quach
Jul 20, 2016 at 1:54 PM ET

In the near future, American soldiers might all be implanted with a sensor before going to battle.

The United States Department of Defense is interested in monitoring the health of soldiers in real-time. But wearable health trackers have faults and limitations. That’s why the Army Research Office and Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency have awarded $7.5 million to San Francisco-based Profusa to develop tissue-integrated health-monitoring sensors for service members. The biotech company announced the grant last week.

Earlier this year, Profusa introduced their first product, Lumee, a sensor that monitors oxygen levels in areas of a body with reduced blood flow. The technology—aimed at people who suffer from peripheral artery disease—alerts users to low levels via a connected smartphone, and lets them know if they need to take action, helping them to respond to a health issue before it becomes an emergency.

In a concept video released earlier this year, a service member monitors another soldier’s health in real-time, and tells him to stop and take deep breaths when he’s not getting enough oxygen. “Profusa’s vision is to replace a point-in-time chemistry panel that measures multiple bio­markers, such as oxygen, glucose, lactate, urea, and ions with a biosensor that provides a continuous stream of wireless data,” Profusa chief executive officer Ben Hwang said in a statement. “We are gratified to be awarded this grant to accelerate the development of our novel tissue-integrating sensors for application to soldier health and peak performance.”

The sensors that Profusa makes are fibers no bigger than a newborn’s eyelash (2 millimeters-to-5 millimeters long and 200-500 microns in dia­meter) and made of a similar material as contact lenses. There are no electronics or metal, so this “smart hyrodgel” material will continue to function in the skin for about two years before the body starts to reject it. Once implanted about three millimeters bellow the surface of the skin, these tiny devices could monitor “a soldier’s metabolic and dehydration status, ion panels, blood gases, and other key physiological biomarkers,” Profusa chief technology officer Natalie Wisniewski said in the statement. In the current version of the technology, users have to place a reader device on the skin above the sensor in order to read the sensor’s findings. 

Once implanted, the data can then be shared with a network of HIPAA-compliant healthcare providers and health researchers, which means whoever implants one of these devices into their skin could be handing over their health information to science.

For those worried about personal surveillance, don’t worry: These sensors don’t have GPS trackers. At least not yet.