Improving soldier health and performance with sensors and stimulators at Wright State center

The Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) at Wright Patterson AFB is the Air Force lead in human performance research and development for its air, space and cyberspace forces.

Supporting that mission is the Ohio Federal Research Network’s (OFRN) Human Performance and Health Sciences (HPHS) Center of Excellence (COE), a research collaborative that aims to build Ohio's tech-based workforce alongside high-impact innovations.

Dr. Tim Broderick of Wright State Research Institute, and associate dean for Research Affairs at the WSU Boonshoft School of Medicine leads the HPHS COE, with support from an advisory board comprised of Ohio academic, federal and industry leaders. Academic partners include the University of Cincinnati, The Ohio State University, the University of Toledo, The Air Force Institute of Technology (AFIT) and Case Western Reserve University. Industry allies to the HPHS COE include The Perduco Group, Eccrine Systems and Premier Health.

HPHS research projects support AFRL in the areas of human performance, human-machine teaming (HMT), autonomy, live virtual and constructive modeling simulation and training and Aerospace Medicine education and training, says Broderick. HPHS is one of six COEs organized by the OFRN, a state-funded initiative established in 2015 to create partnerships among Ohio's research universities, high-tech industries and key Ohio federal laboratories.

OFRN investments are driven by the needs of federal agencies as identified by Ohio-based laboratories at AFRL, the Naval Medical Research Unit-Dayton (NAMRU-D), the National Air and Space Intelligence Center (NASIC) in Dayton and NASA Glenn Research Center (NASA GRC) in Cleveland.

The HPHS COE, headquartered at Wright State University, coordinated input from more than 150 Air Force and Ohio researchers to identify projects with the most potential, says Broderick. The rigorous project review process includes evaluation by OFRN leadership, as well as leaders from Ohio universities, industry and federal government facilities.

"Any Ohio University researcher that wants to participate in OFRN can develop a project that reflects the needs of our government sponsors and industry partners working with the COEs," Broderick says.

Projects are tracked by the COE through a combination of monthly, quarterly and yearly meetings. Jobs created, new contract proposals and wins and invention disclosures filed are among the metrics under the microscope, and the HPHS is committed to cultivating 350 jobs and $75 million in federal and private industry contracts in Ohio over the next five years.

"We have unique, world-class HPHS capabilities in Ohio," explains Broderick. "You just have to look at what's going on at our federal labs. The military and NASA are fully engaged and very supportive partners in the process."

Projects in process

Augmenting human performance and identifying areas that negatively impact warfighter health and performance are the overarching themes of the current two-year HPHS projects, Broderick reports.

For example, the University of Cincinnati is spearheading the Advanced Cognitive and Physical Sweat Biosensing project, which studies wearable sweat sensors that provide real-time analysis of body chemistry.

The non-invasive sensors, the size of a Band-Aid, monitor sweat on the skin, analyzing electrolytes, sodium, potassium, hormone levels and other markers that show early warnings of changes in the body.

Through sweat biosensors, it is possible to chemically quantify both physical and cognitive performance, as well as track in real-time the effects of environmental toxin exposure. Ideally, military officials will someday use bisosensing data to improve the effectiveness of their fighting men and women.

Another effort utilizes algorithms to measure how humans integrate with aircraft flight control systems. The Sliding Scale Autonomy through Physiological Rhythm Evaluations (SAPHYRE) project is based on the notion that the autonomic nervous system is a key predictor of how high performers handle stress.

Warfighters aren't the only ones who could benefit from the innovation, notes Broderick. Auto racers and other top-tier athletes are potential benefactors of SAPHYRE's research. Helping to identify additional market opportunities is, he says, one of the ways that the OFRN differentiates itself and works to maximize return on investment and Ohio impact.

Establishing an ecosystem

While initially focused on AFRL and NAMRU-D requirements, Broderick anticipates the HPHS COE will be sustainable within five years by building on a diverse base of federal and industry support.

OFRN's current work already helped provide the catalyst to win additional federal funding such as a recent $9.1 million Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) prime contract. In this project, a Wright State University led team is evaluating a handheld, low-power electrical stimulator applied to the neck, to stimulate a change in neurons that increases the ability to learn.

The technique, known as vagal nerve stimulation, or VNS, is already FDA-approved 
for the treatment of diseases such as cluster headaches, epilepsy and depression.

The DARPA contract is an example of how the Buckeye State can flourish in the future, Broderick says.

"Collaboration is key for Ohio to be competitive on a national and international stage, and OFRN builds interdisciplinary collaboration."

By addressing federal lab priorities, we grow Ohio's
 research talent base, attract public and private investment, and retain and create new jobs in state, adds the COE leader.

Sweat biosensor research is already harnessing existing athletics licensing from Ohio startup Eccrine Systems, a trend Broderick expects to continue as HPHS transitions its technologies to industry partners.

"We have a big biotech industry across the state, but it's not leveraged in the same way as established ecosystems in San Francisco or Boston," Broderick says. "That thread has to be developed."

Growing a successful network

OFRN partnerships between academic institutions have already proven to be beneficial to the network. Since the launch of initial OFRN projects, multiple joint proposals have been submitted to other funding sources and more than $43 million has been awarded.

This new funding represents a net gain of over $18 million above the $25 million originally provided to OFRN by the state. More than $200 million in follow-on funding is currently being sought through various agencies to advance existing OFRN projects. In addition, active engagement with industry through outreach and industry mixers has uncovered a growing interest in sponsored research in the OFRN industry sectors.

The OFRN continues to build its network beyond the 13 Ohio Research Universities, 52 Industry Partners and the AFRL, NAMRU-D, NASIC and NASA GRC and encourages members of the Ohio business and academic communities to become a part of the movement to increase funding, company growth and job creation. More information about OFRN and the university Centers of Excellence is available at

This series of stories about the Ohio Federal Research Network explores how the organization aligns Ohio’s colleges and universities with the needs of federal agencies to increase research funding, industry collaboration and technology commercialization for job growth and economic development.