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RTI, Garmin® to Explore Potential of Wearable Technology in Detecting COVID-19 and Other Diseases

Research seeks to understand if new approach to collect more data from wearable devices at more frequent intervals improves disease detection

RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK, N.C. — RTI International, a nonprofit research institute, and Garmin® International, Inc., today announced a collaboration to research the potential for wearable devices to detect COVID-19 and other infectious diseases. The research is sponsored by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), part of the Department of Defense (DoD), and will include tracking the health of U.S. Navy sailors living in close quarters aboard a ship.

“We are thrilled to collaborate with Garmin on this research,” said Robert Furberg, senior clinical informaticist at RTI. “The potential of consumer wearable technology to offer disease detection is important and exciting, especially amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Our goal is to test whether more frequent measurements of physiological indicators will be more effective at disease detection than previously possible.”

The research team will collect data using Garmin smartwatches and WRAP, a product of RTI® that can access minimally processed data from Garmin devices, including heart rate, respiratory rate and oxygen saturation, at more frequent intervals.  Several Garmin wearables will be used during the research, including the fēnix® 6 Series, vívoactive® 4 and vívosmart® 4.

Instead of monitoring a person’s average heart rate every 15 seconds, which is a common approach with many wearable device apps, the WRAP app gives RTI researchers the ability to measure the time between each individual heartbeat. This is a departure from previous studies on wearable technology, which have typically not used such high-fidelity data.

The app, built using the Garmin Health Companion SDK with support from RTI Commercialization, also allows for continuous data collection in areas with limited or no access to Wi-Fi or cellular networks — a crucial requirement for when military personnel are in remote areas or are otherwise prohibited from using smartphones to access the internet. Data collected using WRAP are not shared with Garmin or any third parties in an effort to preserve the personal data privacy of study participants.

“The Garmin Health SDKs enable logging of high-resolution physiological data generated by the wearable device,” said Sean McNamara, Garmin Health. “This is one of a few studies that utilizes this approach to collect physiological data. The granularity of the data allows for small variations in the beat-to-beat interval data to be analyzed for changes that could be indicative of illness.”

In addition to the service members and civilians who are participating in DoD’s Rapid Analysis of Threat Exposure (RATE) program, DARPA is also sponsoring an ongoing disease detection study among civilian participants in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina, as part of the SIGMA+ program.

For more information on RTI’s research involving wearable technology, visit: www.rti.org/focus-area/personal-sensor-technologies.