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A Research Team Hopes to Get Every Sailor to Wear a Sleep Tracker. And They Have Big Plans for the Data



The Naval Health Research Center is getting sailors to wear devices that track their sleep, hoping to get a better understanding of how lack of sleep affects performance and crew endurance, while giving commanders hard data on sailors’ sleep patterns.

The research comes on the heels of two separate, deadly ship collisions in 2017. The Arleigh Burke-class destroyer Fitzgerald collided with a cargo ship off Japan in June of that year in an incident that killed seven sailors. Two months later, the destroyer McCain collided with an oil tanker off Singapore, killing 10.

The Navy’s investigation into the incidents revealed that sleep deprivation played a major contributing role.

The service currently is using two kinds of wearable devices — a ring and a watch — to collect sleep data on the crews of selected ships over short periods of time.

The devices collect data on the wearer’s movement, heart rate, body temperature and a few other factors.

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“We’ve been out twice with the crew of the USS Essex, the USS Fitzgerald, the USS Higgins and, most recently, yesterday, we enrolled the blue team from the USS Manchester,” said Dr. Rachel Markwald, one of the researchers behind the effort.

Markwald said her first trip out with the Essex lasted 15 days.

“Each time we go out, we’re advancing just a little bit,” she added.

All of the ships are homeported in San Diego.

Dr. Dale Russell, another researcher involved in the study, said that the goal is to understand several different types of ships.

“Sleep on a small LCS is a lot different than sleeping on a countermine ship, as opposed to doing it on an aircraft carrier,” Russell said.

Both Russell and Markwald said that the response from sailors and commanders has been positive. However, Markwald noted that getting “buy-in and use from the sailor” has been tricky.

“They need to know the why behind it — that this isn’t just about accountability,” she said.

Despite the lofty goals for the project, several issues must be addressed before the wearables are ready for the fleet.

Markwald noted that the team is working with the Naval Information Warfare Center to overcome cybersecurity issues.

Peter Singer, a senior fellow at the think tank New America and an expert on cybersecurity and cyberwarfare, explained that any additional devices on a network increases vulnerabilities.

“There is also the concern that many of the connected devices weren’t designed with security in mind,” he wrote in an email to Military.com.

Singer added that he was “fairly certain the key folks in [the] Navy are more than aware of these risks.”

It’s unclear at the moment whether personal data gathered by a sailor’s wearable device would become part of their medical record.

“That’s a line we haven’t crossed yet, but we’ve been talking about,” Russell said.

If the data does end up following sailors through their careers, it could have wide-ranging implications from how sailors are diagnosed and treated to how disability claims are decided.

Russell stressed that another goal of the effort is to provide more reliable data.

Previously, the Navy has relied on sailors self-reporting sleep figures — a practice that Russell and Markwald admit can lead to errors. In fact, after the 2017 collisions, then-Secretary of the Navy Richard V. Spencer, questioned whether reports of how much work sailors were being asked to do were accurate.

“The ‘hundred-hour’ work week was a self-reporting study that was done that has very little science to it,” Spencer told reporters in 2017.

Right now, despite assurances from commanders that they are taking natural sleep cycle changes seriously, deficits remain.

Russell said their data shows that sailors are getting “about five and a half hours [of sleep] a night across all the ships.”

But he was quick to add that “each ship has its own reality.”

“We’re going to try to move that closer to the seven and a half hours we’ve mandated,” Russell said.

Following the two collisions, the Navy took steps to improve watchstanders’ sleep, including the implementation of a policy aimed at making sleep schedules more consistent, with fewer interruptions.

Markwald hopes that the data will give leaders on ships “the opportunity to intervene.”

“You can’t manage what you’re not monitoring,” she said.

— Konstantin Toropin can be reached at konstantin.toropin@military.com. Follow him on Twitter @ktoropin.

Related: Army Using Wearable Tracking Devices to Learn How Soldiers Perform Under Pressure

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