In October 1962, the U.S. Army Aeromedical Research Unit was established with a goal of providing specialized medical and physiological support to help close the gap between Army combat aviation needs and human capabilities, and to protect aviators from altitude, climate, noise, acceleration, impact, and other stressors in a growing hostile environment. In 1969, the Army re-designated the unit as the U.S. Army Aeromedical Research Laboratory (USAARL).
Located at Fort Rucker, AL, USAARL has been involved with most medical aspects of vehicular occupancy, airworthiness testing, air safety, occupational hazard exposures, and personal protective equipment. In addition, USAARL has researched topics such as vibration, jet lag and fatigue, tinnitus, helmets, visors, night vision goggles, seats and restraints, and spatial disorientation.
The USAARL research platforms support Army aviation and airborne activities, focusing on blunt, blast, and accelerative injury and protection; crew survival in military helicopters and combat vehicles; en-route care environment; human operator health and performance in complex systems; and sensory performance, injury, and protection.
The Airworthiness Certification and Evaluation Division (ACED) provides a cost-effective joint test, evaluation, and certification program focused on carry-on medical equipment used in the aviation environment by military healthcare providers during aeromedical evacuation transports in support of the warfighter and casualty treatment within the en-route care system. ACED maintains the unique capability of testing and evaluating portable medical equipment in a simulated military aeromedical evacuation environment. These tests and evaluations ensure that the equipment continues to perform to the manufacturer’s specifications while exposed to the harsh enroute care environments, promoting the safe interaction among the medical equipment, patients, aircrew, and the aircraft.
The Aircrew Health and Performance Division (AHPD) conducts applied research to study the effects of the military aviation environment on aircrew mental and physical health, flight performance, and mission success. AHPD also aims to improve knowledge and treatment of injury under the physical, mechanical, and physiological stresses of the military patient movement environment.
AHPD is working to allow aviators to fly longer, solve the spatial disorientation problem, and develop new methods for measuring the impact of external factors such as fatigue, workload, and cognitive functioning on aviators. This research is also expanding beyond pilots to the operators of unmanned aerial systems to tackle those unique challenges.
The division’s research encompasses aeromedical, psychological, behavioral, and neurocognitive effects on health, performance, safety, and effectiveness in the aviation operational environment. AHPD performs medical technology performance evaluations to support the prevention of in-transit injury or compromise, and/or the treatment of injured or ill patients during evacuation, ensuring safe interaction among medical equipment, patients, crew, and air and ground ambulances.
The Auditory Protection and Performance Division (APPD) conducts sensory research to protect, sustain, and extend the operational capabilities of Army warfighters by using applied medical and operational techniques to study auditory and vestibular function. APPD utilizes state-of-the-art equipment such as laser Doppler vibrometers that measure the movement of the eardrum in relation to different sound waves, enabling a proper understanding of the functions of the middle and inner ear.
With the introduction of 3D printing, APPD is working to print custom earplugs. Traditionally, an impression of the ear would be shipped to a company, fabricated, and reshipped to the customer within weeks. By investigating the efficacy of scanning the ear canal and fabricating custom earplugs locally, APPD may reduce the wait time for the customer and potentially expand hearing protection options for the warfighter.
The Injury Biomechanics Division (IBD) develops biomedical assessment tools and performance standards to prevent and mitigate soldier injuries by researching blunt, blast, and accelerative injuries and exposures. IBD conducts research on soldier injury mechanisms, human tolerance levels, injury risk mitigation technologies, and health hazards present in the full spectrum of Army operational and training environments. The division’s six research areas include investigating mechanisms of and tolerances to the neck and spine, head and brain, and face and eye injuries while also evaluating the effectiveness of proposed protective countermeasures.
Capabilities include anthropomorphic test devices, data acquisition systems, high-rate video and physiological instrumentation, mass properties instruments, portable ultrasound, pressure mapping systems, sensors (accelerometers, pressure, force, inertial systems), and motion capture systems.
The Survival Analysis Team’s (SAT) mission is to maximize the level of protection afforded to Army aircrew members by analyzing aviation life support equipment, studying injury mechanisms, tracking patterns, and highlighting issues that may decrease those protection levels. Additionally, SAT collects and analyzes available individual protective and safety equipment involved in Army ground events, within the context of operational accidents and sustained injuries.
The Visual Protection and Performance Division (VPPD) develops visual system testing, ocular injury criteria, and ophthalmic standards to improve visual health and the effectiveness of eye protection and wear compliance. Research areas include evaluating the medical effectiveness of eye protection designs, developing methodologies for testing protective eyewear, and development of advanced systems to improve and preserve vision and visual efficiency, particularly as applied to night operations, degraded visual environment, and the modern Army aviation battlefield.
Through its divisions and focused capabilities, USAARL has developed dozens of technologies that assist the warfighter as well as the general public. Many have been commercialized while others are still in the developmental stage.
In 2007, the USAARL developed a stethoscope that can be used to listen to heart and lung sounds in high-noise environments such as medical evacuation vehicles. The Noise Immune Stethoscope uses a traditional acoustic listening mode similar to classic acoustic stethoscopes but also adds ultrasound-based technology that is “noise immune” to amplify heart and lung sounds. This technology has the capability for users to switch easily from Doppler to acoustic mode. Both modes immediately turn body sounds into electrical signals for enhanced performance.
The Electronic Surveillance System for the Early Notification of Community-based Epidemics (ESSENCE) is a system proposed for the early detection of infectious disease outbreaks. Data from patient symptoms are instantaneously recorded at a patient’s visit and uploaded into ESSENCE, which also contains diagnoses from 104 primary care and emergency clinics within a 50-mile radius of Washington, DC. Diagnostic codes are grouped into “syndromic clusters” consistent with emerging infections, including bioterrorism. Once an outbreak is suspected, the system dispatches an epidemic control team that may include epidemiologists, statisticians, and laboratory personnel.
Malaria constitutes a serious infectious disease threat to U.S. forces in times of war and peace in most tropical and some subtropical regions of the world. The Malaria Rapid Diagnostic Device (MRDD) permits field diagnosis of malaria infection and early intervention. Malaria is a potentially fatal illness with the ability to quickly incapacitate large numbers of personnel. The MRDD is a field-deployable, handheld, disposable, point-of-care test to detect the presence of malaria parasites in blood samples of persons with symptoms compatible with malaria. The MRDD test follows a simple procedure where a whole blood finger-stick sample is added to a sample pad. After 15 minutes, the results are displayed in a small window on the device. The speed and simplicity allow diagnosis and targeted treatment to occur in the same patient visit, allowing for improved patient outcomes. The MRDD kits were completed and cleared by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 2009; MRDD kits are marketed worldwide.
The Chitosan Hemorrhage Control Dressing adheres to an injury site to form a clot and stop severe bleeding. This dressing is manufactured from chitosan, a natural biomaterial obtained from shellfish. Once applied, the dressing tightly adheres to an injury site, forming a durable clot. The dressing will stop severe external arterial and venous bleeding. The FDA cleared the dressing for external use in 2002 and later expanded the dressing’s indication to include use as an antibacterial barrier in 2005.
The Golden Hour Blood Container can hold red blood cells and needs no power source to maintain its internal temperature. It holds four units of red blood cells and uses a combination of vacuum-insulated panels and an internal container that has a liquid phase-change material like reusable freezer packs. At room temperature, units of blood cells can last 121 hours at well below freezing (-9 °F) for more than 97 hours, and at 105 °F, they are good for more than 78 hours. It extends the amount of time a medic can transport blood products and allows for extended evacuation times. The Golden Hour Blood Container was named one of the Army’s Greatest Inventions for 2003.
The Hypothermia Prevention and Management Kit consists of a water-resistant reflective blanket, a heat-reflective skull cap, and a Ready-Heat blanket that has built-in chemical heating elements that can achieve 100 to 110 °F in about 30 minutes; it can sustain this temperature for more than 8 hours. The kit weighs 3 pounds and is disposable.
The Spray-On Protective Bandage is an antimicrobial, flexible bandage that will reduce or eliminate blood and fluid loss, reduce or eliminate pain associated with motion, and protect wounds from environmental contamination. Wound stabilization is provided for two or more days after injury. This product is easily applied on the battlefield and allows mobility for the warfighter with small wounds — large wounds can be stabilized following initial treatment with compression-style and hemostatic dressings or minimal tourniquet use. Another liquid bandage called GelSpray™ forms a tough hydrogel in seconds that conforms directly to a wound without sticking to it when removed. The GelSpray Liquid Bandage was approved by the FDA for minor cuts and irritations in 2008.
The PowerFoot by iWalk is a microprocessor-controlled prosthetic ankle system that is the first to provide active plantar flexion push-off and holds great potential to significantly reduce detrimental compensations, functional limitations, and long-term morbidity association with lower extremity amputation. It is expected to provide the greatest benefit during performance of challenging tasks such as walking over rocky terrain and on stairs and slopes where the demand for push-off power is significantly increased.
Another advanced prosthetic, the Spring Ankle with Regenerative Kinetics (SPARKy) is a powered prosthetic device based on the robotic tendon actuator. The robotic tendon is a lightweight actuator that has kinetic advantages and stores and releases energy to provide users with 100 percent of required push-off power and ankle range of motion comparable to able-bodied ankle motion while maintaining a form factor that is portable to the wearer. Additionally, this prosthesis will support continuous unstructured walking for up to 2.8 hours.
A noninvasive, patient-specific system was developed that accurately detects electrographic seizure onset sufficiently in advance of the onset of symptoms to warn the patient of an impending seizure or to automatically trigger potentially abortive therapy. The detection system is capable of learning to recognize seizure onset patterns with high sensitivity and specificity. Integrated with an audible alarm, the system could potentially ameliorate the consequences of seizures by giving patients and caregivers time to seek a safe position or to administer an acute pharmacological therapy.
The Combat Application Tourniquet (CAT) is a lightweight, easy-to-use tourniquet for hemorrhage control in severely bleeding extremities. The CAT strap-type tourniquet features a single-routing buckle through which soldiers feed the tourniquet belt before tightening it with the windlass. It allows rapid, effective control of extremity hemorrhage for self, buddy, or medic application in far-forward locations. The CAT was named one of the Army’s 10 Greatest Inventions for 2005.
The USAARL builds collaborative relationships with industry, academia, and other organizations.
The U.S. Army Medical Research and Materiel Command (USAMRMC) Office of Research and Technology Applications (ORTA) or Technology Transfer Office coordinates all intellectual property licensing on behalf of all of its subordinate laboratories from the federal sector to nonfederal parties.