Wearable Devices can transform Maritime Operations

Issues Details: 
Vol 11 Issue 4 Sep- Oct 2017
Page No.: 
Sub Title: 
Impact that wearable devices will have in future maritime warfare
Dr Vijay Sakhuja
Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Wearable technologies or simply ‘wearables’ are those which can be “worn by a consumer”. These are generally categorized as ‘smart’ products, and include devices such as mobile phones, watches, wrist band, patches, eyewear, hearables, attachable, footwear, or clothing. Significantly, these are crafting a ‘wrist revolution’, ‘head revolution’, and ‘clothing revolution’, transforming human activity led by advancements in deep machine learning. Wearables products embed a variety of nodes that are attached or are in contact with various parts of human body, and sense relative movement and orientation in space. Further, their use for studying geography and understanding nature (land, sea and air) takes them to a new level of human imagination.

The wearable products can be synchronized with other devices to transfer data both through connectors or Wi-Fi. Besides, these are physically manageable, handy and flexible enough to be worn under and over the clothing, and can even be implantable in humans. These can also be ‘ingestible’ in the form of pills that run through the body and transmit data through applications embedded in smart phones. Some are even capable of real-time ‘video and audio capture and feedback’ to the wearer or controller. Perhaps what is more interesting is that the developers of these devices have proactively used esthetic and art to make them appealing to consumers and fashionable to wear.

According to market data, wearables (smart watches, smart clothing, eyewear, headwear, and footwear) witnessed a 171 per cent increase in shipments in 2015, reaching a total of 78 million devices. Experts note that the wearable technology has not yet penetrated the mass market, but its net worth is expected to be of nearly US $ 51.60 billion by 2022 at a CAGR of 15.51 per cent between 2016 and 2022.

A number of sectors such as consumer wearable, healthcare-related products, textile and cloth manufacturers, integrated device manufacturers, and wearable electronics technology platform developers are closely following the growth in these devices. For instance, 5 million pairs of smart shoes will be sold in 2020 and similar trends are expected in healthcare devices like wearable patches. Market leaders such as the International Data Corp. (IDC) argue that “Wearables are not just for technophiles,” instead, “there is still plenty of room for growth,” for the wider population.

Wearables and Military

According to a market expert, “wearables are starting to be more widely adopted in aerospace and defense, and this trend is “likely to pick up momentum during the next few years as the technology continues to mature”. It is true that the use of wearables in the military is evolving and these devices are being put to use predominantly in non-combat activities; however, there is potential for their use in combat role. Also, these can enhance performance in manufacturing, operations, maintenance and repair of machinery systems, weapon equipment and sensors. Besides, these can augment Human Sensor Interface (HSI).

In the military, the use of wearables for medical and health monitoring is functional. The concept involves obtaining physiological data through a sensor worn by individual soldiers and parameters such as temperature, blood pressure, heart rate, pulse, respiration rate, body temperature etc. can be recorded. This data can be recorded and transmitted real-time through Wi-Fi or electronic transmission for automatic download at a location far from the soldier. For instance, the Fitbit Ionic is a new smartwatch that is designed to display glucose levels collected by a sensor which is implanted under the skin. Likewise, Withings Pulse and Apple iWatch are other good wearables devices that record human health and exercise regime with precision and consistency of a hospital.

There are some wearables that are designed for the blind which help them to transition from Braille to Bionic cameras to assist read signs, detect faces and feel obstacles which are communicated by an ear piece that can filter out or amplify noise. For the military, these devices can be modified for vision-enhancing and augmenting the marines engaged in special operations. Besides being light weight, wearable, and implantable, these are switchable ‘between seeing in night vision, infrared, thermal, zoom, telescopic and more’. In a similar context, wearable computing systems are being developed to adapt to the highly digital and network-centric battlefield respond to the enemy.

The use of hand held devices to monitor threats of chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear and explosive (CBRNE) hazards in battlefield is not new. But the bigger challenge is to obtain “real-time answers that allow actionable decisions to be made on-the-spot”. Militaries are exploring the possibility of “offloading forward decision making and analysis from soldiers to software.” The algorithms integrate signal detection, data processing and sensor fusion. With wearable devices, it is possible to send data to command posts for analysis and augment decision-making in complex environments. 

Wearables in Maritime Operations

There is an aggressive and sweeping digital transformation in the maritime industry and ships are being modified /constructed to harness the neo-digital shipboard equipment and operations through the Human Machine Interface (HMI). At the core lies the belief that machines can be made as intelligent as the humans through deep learning, and then it is possible to integrate and digitally co-habit crew and machine to work seamlessly across stationery, mobile and wearable devices. The maritime industry which works fiercely on profits can potentially be a major user of the HMI driven systems through cutting costs on crew, maintenance, operations and supply chains. Industry experts argue that “compatibility with wearable technology is extremely important for the shipping sector because whether it is today or in 3 years’ time, wearable technology will become widely adopted for any task that requires hands-free operation and communication or remote expert support, such as complex mechanical failures or any mission critical or hazardous job where audio visual expertise can be delivered right to the front line where and when it is needed.”

Wearables and Translators

Another promising use of wearable devices is for language translation. Although its usage in the civilian domain is well known through software and apps and the buzz word in this domain is ‘a world without language barriers’ or “Tear down language barriers”. It has been noted that advances in “speech recognition, machine translation and the advances of wearable technology” are resulting in “smart earpiece” that enable the “wearers to speak different languages but still clearly understand each other”.

There are a number of spinoffs for commercially available wearable translators for military applications and soldiers have been using them. The US military uses the Boundless Operational Language Translation (BOLT) in Afghanistan to understand the foreign slang. Similarly, the Multilingual Computing and Analysis Branch at the Army Research Laboratory has developed algorithms for translation devices that can “comprehend dialects of French and translate them into English” for use by US soldiers operating in the continent of Africa. A similar device for dialects of Arabic is being developed and “voice data is already being collected from Tunisia”.

A Japanese device called ‘ili’ which works without mobile data or Wi-Fi and therefore can be used in remote places. It is capable of translating English, Japanese, and Chinese and according to the developer of these devices more languages will be added over time.

Wearables and Ocean Monitoring

Climate Change and Blue Economy are two dominant discourses that have attracted the attention of scientists, governments and the private sector that rely heavily on marine data from the ocean to understand global warming, safety and security, resource extraction and many other purposes. A vast network of remote and unmanned platforms and devices are communicating with one another and with space based and airborne platforms, and onshore facilities. In 2013, a student led NASA project demonstrated that by using commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) hardware it is possible to develop spacecraft that can use smartphones (Phone Sat 1.0 around the Nexus One smartphone made by HTC Corp., running Google’s Android™ operating system; and Phone Sat 2.0 equipped with newer  Nexus S smartphone made by Samsung Electronics running Google’s Android™ operating system to provide a faster core processor, avionics and gyroscopes” at a cost of about US $3,500 keeping the “design and mission objectives as simple as possible”. The mobile phone revolution has made it cost-effective to connect remote sensing devices on land, littorals, space and air to the internet, providing real-time data and the ability to understand the oceans.

Challenges and Policy Options

The rising popularity of wearables is offering a number of new opportunities but it is not without its challenges. These span the technological dimensions of its development to fears among the society that wearables could one day even go past the humans and be devoid of emotions and ethics. At a fundamental level is the fear that the wearables in the market would result in abundance of data that will be “stored, sent, and retrieved” necessitating a greater digital security. The key slogan among the digital professional is “data must be secure” and most breeches happen at the human level.

Second, wearable devices with Wi-Fi and recording capabilities are considered as a potent source of data leak among the militaries. These are built/assembled using components manufactured in various countries thereby “increasing security risks because of malicious subterfuge by nation-states or even unintentional flaws that yield vulnerabilities”. For instance, in 2014, the Indian Air Force dissuaded “its personnel and their families not to use Chinese ‘Xiaomi Redmi 1s’ phones as it believes these phones could be transferring data to their servers in China and hence be a security risk”.

As far as the navies are concerned, wearables are considered low-security and easy to hack into gadgets and devices, and therefore are prohibited on board ships. Navies have been very cautious of their usage among its personnel, and there is an ongoing debate on “whether or not to wear the device to work, or be prepared to take it off in a secure area”. Most navies have chosen to give a pass to commercially available wearable devices till such time these have passed through the stringent technical-security specifications of respective military establishments. Third, there is a belief that wearable devices generate signal clutter thereby degrading electronic warfare capabilities of a warship.

Concluding Thoughts

The growth of wearables is quite inevitable and it is fitting to explore opportunities for the navies and the maritime industry to exploit these smart devices and technologies in warfare and non-combat operations. It is also useful to mention that it is an attractive option for the military to modify COTS technologies thereby overcoming challenges of Research and Development, particularly for the combat environment. 

Military Technology