Undergrads partner with NATO to reduce combat casualties

Originally published by Catherine Graham on The Hub in August 2021

A team of Clark Scholars has developed a wearable device that can relay a soldier’s vitals to combat medics, making it easier to determine who needs medical attention most urgently.

During the Napoleonic Wars, the French Imperial Army tried something rather novel: medics treated wounded soldiers according to the severity of their injuries instead of by military rank. Triage—prioritized care based on the severity of condition—has proved critical for saving lives on many battlefields since.

Now combat triage is undergoing yet another dramatic transformation—this time, a digital one. Working with the NATO HQ Supreme Allied Command Transformation Innovation Hub and the SACT Medical Branch, student engineers and scientists at Johns Hopkins University and the Czech Technical University have leveraged artificial intelligence to create a Digital Triage Assistant. Worn like a watch on soldiers’ wrists, the device collects their vital signs and location data, feeding that information in real-time to a dashboard that not only tells medics where the wounded are located but also assesses the severity of their injuries.

The student engineers are all members of the Clark Scholars Program. Established in 2016 with a $15 million investment in the Whiting School of Engineering from the A. James & Alice B. Clark Foundation, the program is designed not only to attract talented engineering students to Johns Hopkins, but also to prepare them for leadership roles. The cohort is advised by Lawrence Aronhime and Alexander Cocron, faculty members in the school’s Center for Leadership Education.

The cohort began tackling the ambitious project in 2019, when the NATO HQ SACT Medical Branch asked them to develop a technology solution to reduce battlefield casualties in future NATO missions. Students met with high-level military leaders, government officials, and frontline medics from the United States, the British Army, and the Israel Defense Forces to better understand the challenges faced in combat triage situations. Soon they began collaborating remotely with CTU students in Prague.

As they worked on the project, the students also considered how triage practices may change depending on the war zone. In regions where NATO has stronger control of the airspace, medical evacuations can be performed quickly and survival rates can be very high. But if battlefields emerge where NATO doesn’t control airspace, combat medics will face a very different set of circumstances: air evacuations may be limited and wounded soldiers may be scattered over larger areas or be required to be treated on-site. The Digital Triage Assistant is well-suited to assist medics in this type of scenario, Aronhime said.

He adds that the team is already thinking about how this system could move beyond the battlefield and have civilian applications, such as in busy emergency departments or following mass casualty incidents.

The first prototype is scheduled to be field tested in cooperation with the Czech Armed Forces beginning in August, following delays caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Read the full version of the article on The Hub.

By contributor