West Point cadets given wearable devices for contact-tracing test

Photo credit Army.mil
By Connecting Vets

By Joseph Lacdan, Army News Service

West Point cadets have begun testing wearable devices designed to quickly identify COVID-19 cases and control infection rates.

Smartwatches worn by cadets will monitor whether users follow correct physical distancing protocols during a two-month limited user test at the U.S. Military Academy, which officially starts Saturday during the Army-Navy football game.

If the devices prove effective, they could supply Army commanders with valuable data in helping determine which Soldiers should be quarantined or tested for coronavirus, said Col. Edward Teague, USMA chief information officer.

The Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps will complete their own tests and then each military branch will evaluate its findings in February. The services will then develop a hybrid solution from those results for distribution across the services. The Army has been conducting a smaller study of the test on two Navy ships.

Photo credit Army.mil

“The Army has to safeguard readiness,” said William Cohen, chief technology officer for the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army for Acquisition, Logistics and Technology, or ASA (ALT). “Readiness is essential. So the approach is how do you use and leverage commercial, wearable devices to enable force protection using proximity logging … [for] actionable information for leaders to make decisions about the health of their force?”

Teague added that the majority of the 4,600 West Point cadets will be required to wear the watches in all campus activities. Only cadets taking part in other research studies will not be wearing the devices.

“Based on a COVID positive test, we can then draw that radius around them based on the proximity with someone who has spent time with them or when another device has spent time with them,” Teague said. “And then we can validate the likelihood that we think someone is actually infected by looking at the medical results of testing.”

The watches, Samsung Galaxy Watch3s, use enhanced contact-tracing technology to transmit a Bluetooth signal that records cadets’ movements in relation to each other. The data is then downloaded and stored on a secure, government-controlled, cloud server.

Cohen said that the watches will be monitored to track students participating in high-risk behaviors, such as remaining in close proximity of large groups for extended periods of time.

The scalable devices, which were issued to cadets from Nov. 30-Dec. 5, can be adjusted to monitor different population or installation sizes and records all user interactions. Cohen said that the devices contain no GPS data and therefore do not track the locations of cadets; instead, they only log their proximity to each other. No personal health information will be stored on the devices.

Teague said use of the devices will augment the contract tracing procedures already in place at West Point. Contract tracing is the process of identifying patients with infectious diseases and the people they contact.

Bruce Jette, who oversees ASA (ALT), asked Cohen to develop a limited user test after observing the use of enhanced contact tracing during an overseas trip to Singapore in February. He added that West Point provides the ideal environment for the test.

“The cadets are a highly motivated and technically-capable user group,” Jette said. “By developing secure capabilities that enable us to actively assess the health status of our personnel, Army leadership at all levels will be able to make informed decisions that take care of our people and maximize our force readiness.”

Unlike manual contact tracing where individuals trace their interactions with others by memory, the smart devices collect the data.

“We can know installation-wide how people are behaving [in] any installation size," Cohen said. "It doesn't matter the scale."

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