University of Iowa virtual soldiers to predict, mitigate military injuries

Research team lands $2.6 million from Office of Naval Research

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IOWA CITY — A University of Iowa Virtual Soldier Research Program that has generated $38 million in external funding has received another grant — this one worth $2.6 million — to go beyond the scope of the original project by using virtual technology to predict injuries and make conditioning suggestions to avoid them.

The grant comes from the Office of Naval Research with hopes the U.S. Marines will be using UI-created virtual technology to inform individual training plans within three to four years. Specially, the new simulation program will focus on predicting and preventing musculoskeletal injuries in marines, which UI officials say is among the leading medical problems hindering military preparedness.

In 2006, about 1.95 million musculoskeletal injuries were reported across the entire military, according to Karim Abdel-Malek, a UI professor of biomedical and mechanical engineering.

“That is just in one year,” said Abdel-Malek, who established the virtual soldier program in 2003 and is principal investigator on the new project.

In general, he said, disability compensation for military injuries exceeds $750 million a year.

“There have been recent reports that say that injuries in the military is really a hidden epidemic,” Abdel-Malek said. “As a result, the U.S. Marines are very interested in reducing that, understanding it better, increasing the performance such that they sustain less injuries, and doing all of that from a very scientific point of view.

“That’s where we come in,” he said.

The new project will build upon the UI Virtual Soldier Program that for more than a decade has used its virtual soldiers — Santos and Sophia — to simulate load configurations, test various scenarios, and recommend optimum equipment designs.

One of the more recent programs UI researchers created using the virtual soldiers allows the military to try out new equipment without bringing in a large number of test subjects, according to Abdel-Malek.

“Our simulator cuts the cost and time,” he said.

The new work will use characteristics of individual soldiers — including height, weight, strength, and aerobic capacity — to create virtual simulations in different training environments. The program then will predict injuries, based on a person’s unique physicality, and suggest training modifications.

“If a 22-year-old marine comes in — it’s a female with this build, this weight, this mass and so on — we are able to model that person and then run her through simulations and say, ‘With this load that she would carry — let’s say 75 pounds — she’d be able to run only this much after which she will sustain an injury,’” Abdel-Malek said.

Should the system identify someone as potentially having injuries, the program would make strengthening and conditioning recommendations to improve performance and avoid injuries. And, Abdel-Malek said, his team is working with the UI Department of Athletics on some of the human physiology aspects of the program.

Landon Evans, assistant strength and conditioning coach for UI Olympic Sports, said in a news release that the interdisciplinary group will give the virtual soldiers the ability to grow stronger and experience less weakness with sustained activity.

“With these individualized simulations,” Evans said, “the soldiers can become more resilient because we know that if they can mitigate themselves against the risk factors of training, the likelihood of reducing injuries increases.”

Kevin Kregel, a UI professor of human physiology and co-principal investigator on the project, said researchers typically would have to use hundreds of subjects to get the kind of data the virtual program aims to provide.

“Using out innovative approach, we can do the modeling and predictions by testing a lot fewer human subjects,” he said.

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