Smartwatches Could Help Air Force Pilots, Crew Recognize Dangerous Fatigue

Work-related burnout is a national problem. But when it comes to military aviation, it can be deadly.

For the last few years, Air Force Maj. Alexander Criss has pursued a mission to get more rest for pilots and crew heading out for operations across the globe. And that has led to the development of a smartwatch app that aims to help pilots and crew understand their bodies’ rhythms and when they’re most drowsy.

It started as a simple question.

“Am I the only one who’s tired all the time when I’m flying? Or is this a more systemic problem for mobility air forces?” Criss said during a recent interview with The pilot, who had first approached the idea during a course at the Advanced Study of Air Mobility program, is now assigned to U.S. Transportation Command in Illinois.

Related: Air Force Looks to Artificial Intelligence to Fight Future Wars

Through his research, Criss found that more than half of mobility pilots — 53% — were flying “during this window when their body thinks they should be sleeping.”

The lingering fatigue can greatly affect reflexes pilots need to keep aircraft steady, as well as coordination needed for air refueling, landing or dealing with an emergency, he said.

“One of the things that seemed like a constant was that, when we were flying, there was always a certain level of fatigue associated with these flying operations,” he said.

Another component of the problem is that mobility pilots operate as a crew, Criss said.

“We are all trained to fly and work together as a team to get through the mission,” he said. “Well, the problem is when we have impaired cognitive reflex and interpersonal capabilities, our crew resource management is negatively impacted.”

Criss expanded his research at the Air Force’s Air University School of Advanced Air and Space Studies last year and began to look for solutions.

Enter BETTY, or the Better Effectiveness Through Tracking Yourself project.

“BETTY helps fill a gap in our current fatigue risk management system,” said Criss, who’s flown as a C-21KC-10 and C-5 pilot. He joined the service in 2006.

BETTY — which is what Criss also affectionately calls the voice in the cockpit alert system — is a multi-pronged process, he explained.

The system includes a wristwatch that measures a pilot’s circadian rhythm, or the internal, 24-hour clock that regulates a person’s sleep-wake cycle.

“Circadian rhythm disruption … is when our bodies are out of sync with our sleep and wake cycles,” Criss said. After flying, many people feel jet lag because the body and mind interpret differently when they should be asleep or awake, he explained.

“So one of the things I wanted to look at was how many of our crews are flying the opposite of their body clock,” he said.

A proposed software app would monitor “that data from the watch, and it’s actually able to run it through some of the sleep models that are already out there,” Criss said, adding that Air Mobility Command already uses a Sleep, Activity, Fatigue and Task Effectiveness (SAFTE) model that monitors some of these factors.

The combined data can act as a sleep assistant. “When I land in, say, Germany, and I’m trying and maybe I’ve already been awake for 27 hours, but the watch is telling me, ‘Hey, you’ve entered a low point in your circadian rhythm, you need to get two hours of sleep right now,” Criss said.

There is room for adjustment, especially if airmen can’t sleep very long knowing they have to grab a bite to eat or take off again soon for another mission.

“Maybe I don’t get that [two hours],” Criss said. “But BETTY is making all these adjustments in real time to try to help me maximize this crew rest” at a later time.

Criss’ final vision for BETTY is for it to pull the data from each crew member’s app into an aggregated dashboard that the crews, or even AMC, can monitor.

“Think of it like a battery for each crew — now AMC can see in real time all of the effectiveness and fatigue levels of their crews aggregated as one. When that call actually comes down for an alert, you can actually look at the ‘batteries’ of those crews, and see which crew is the most effective” to send out, he said.

The data would require backup security to protect privacy and avoid hacking.

“From a ‘big brother’ perspective to the crews, it’s not AMC watching you specifically. They’re looking at your crew as a whole” for operational benefit, Criss said.

“And [the data] absolutely” needs to stay out of adversaries’ hands, he said.

Criss presented his research “Tired of Flying: The Unmitigated Risk of Aircrew Fatigue” and BETTY as the solution earlier this year to officials of MGMWERX, a partnership organization that blends part of DEFENSEWERX and the Air Force Research Laboratory at Air University at Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama, to promote agile business.

MGMWERX in May offered a $1.5 million commitment for a Small Business Innovation Research, or SBIR, program in the phase two stage. Through AFWERX — an Air Force innovation program that partners with small business and academia — a team then put together a proposal, asking for a real-time fatigue system for risk assessment; the window on the SBIR proposals closed this week, and an award contract is expected in the near future.

The Air Force-led organizations “put some money behind it to say, ‘We want to solve this problem,’ which is awesome,” Criss said.

“Anytime you do research, one of the things is, ‘Well, that’ll probably just end up in a trash can,'” he said. “It’s been pretty amazing that people have cared about it and that people are trying to actually take up a problem and work as a team to solve it.”

— Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at Follow her on Twitter at @Oriana0214.

24 Oct 2019 | By Oriana Pawlyk