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Air Force SBIR/STTR Program Manager


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SAFTE/FAST – A Fatigue Risk Management tool

Streaking at altitude toward Iraq in 2001, a B-2 Stealth bomber on a 42-hour mission from Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri carried a secret weapon wedged behind the pilot’s seat: a nine dollar cot from Walmart with a sleeping bag thrown on top.

Pilot fatigue on extended missions had long been a serious concern in the Air Force, especially in the B-2, with its crew of only two. Willpower, training, stimulants—in the end, nothing can overpower the body’s insistent command to sleep.

For years, lack of an objective way to predict how tired a pilot might be under a given schedule remained a stumbling block in fatigue-risk management. But that obstacle began to fall in the late 1990s, when Army scientist Steven R. Hursh, working at Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, developed a biomathematical model to predict cognitive performance based on the body's own circadian rhythms and sleep/wake cycles.

Not long after Hursh developed the model—dubbed SAFTE, for Sleep, Activity, Fatigue, and Task Effectiveness—he was invited to Brooks Air Force Base to give a talk. Brooks researchers, including Douglas R. Eddy, senior research scientist at NTI Inc., a civilian contractor at Brooks, were intrigued. “The potential of SAFTE as a foundation for fatigue-risk management was clear,” Eddy recalls, “but the model only existed in a huge Excel spreadsheet. So we decided we should try to turn that spreadsheet into a commercial product that anybody could use.”

NTI Inc. didn’t have the resources to pursue such a project on its own, so Eddy turned to the SBIR program. When he looked, however, the subject of fatigue wasn’t on the published list of SBIR topics. NTI Inc. submitted a Phase I proposal to the Air Force anyway, to convert the SAFTE model into an accessible, programmable product. The proposal was approved, and the Phase I team included Eddy, Hursh (then at Science Applications International Corporation), and Timothy Elsmore, a former Army research psychologist with exceptional programming skills. At the end of Phase I, in 2001, the group had the first version of their game-changing software product: FAST—the Fatigue Avoidance Scheduling Tool. At last, Air Force mission planners could accurately predict cycles of greatest fatigue, and schedule rest periods at the most advantageous times to restore pilot alertness. In that B-2, crawling behind the seat to stretch out for a rest was now an official duty.

Next, Eddy applied for and received pivotal SBIR Phase II funds to refine and improve FAST into a supremely user-friendly, versatile, and highly accurate tool with the potential to be commercialized. Eddy, Hursh, and Elsmore, with James C. Miller and Lt. Andrew Workman of the Air Force Biosciences and Protection Division, programmed additional features into FAST, enhanced the interface, and conducted field studies to acquire new data and further validate the SAFTE model.

“SBIR support was critical in developing FAST,” says Eddy, not just for the essential economic investment, but for the military’s operational knowledge and experience, and the ready pool of subjects to test and prove the technology. Working exactly as intended, the SBIR enabled entrepreneurial energy and creativity to leverage government resources to transform a research concept into a concrete product. By the end of Phase II, in 2005, FAST was ready to roll.

Around the same time, neuroscientist Traci Downs and her husband, medical physicist Hunter Downs, had been working in the field of brain imaging. Wanting to expand into fatigue and sleep research, they launched a start-up called Archinoetics in 2005, purchasing the license to FAST from NTI, and securing an exclusive commercial license to SAFTE from the Army. They also brought in fatigue expert and former Air Force researcher John Caldwell and others. To use the FAST software at that time, schedulers had to input estimated or reported sleep data. So as part of their early efforts, Archinoetics began to develop an actigraph to actually measure an individual’s sleep patterns, with the intention of adding a new level of precision in predicting alertness and fatigue levels.

Meanwhile, Canadian occupational health and safety professional Pat Byrne had been on a personal mission to learn all he could about fatigue risk. In 1996, Byrne’s 22-year-old nephew was killed when he fell asleep at the wheel driving home to meet his fiancé from a long forestry shift in northeastern British Columbia. “I thought I knew a lot about occupational risk,” Byrne says. But he soon realized that work-related fatigue wasn’t on the radar in private industry. He discovered FAST, and quickly saw how the technology could be used in a variety of ways. “It was very good, very powerful, and very accurate,” he says. Byrne, at that time an industry consultant, licensed FAST from Archinoetics. In December 2006, Traci and Hunter Downs and Pat Byrne joined forces to start a new company, Fatigue Science, transferring the licenses from Archinoetics.

In 2007, Fatigue Science introduced their wrist-worn actigraph, the Readiband. By the end of that year, the company was marketing a complete package of Readiband hardware, FAST software, and comprehensive sleep analysis and performance modeling to heavy industry and other clients. Mining giant Rio Tinto was an early user, and by utilizing Readiband and FAST to shape and implement new work guidelines, the company increased productivity and substantially reduced fatigue-related accidents. Fatigue Science got another boost when the Vancouver Canucks hockey team stepped up to try the technology. The Canucks’ road schedule was brutal on players, and they were desperate for a remedy. After signing on with Fatigue Science, the Canucks went from having one of the worst travel records to leading the league two years in a row for wins on the road—prompting the team to negotiate an exclusive three-year right to the technology within the National Hockey League.

Steve Hursh and the Institutes for Behavior Resources, Inc., working under licensing from Fatigue Science, moved the FAST technology into rail and commercial aviation. Hursh’s key follow-on research in US railroads and airlines had shown that FAST could predict accident risk and aircrew performance, crucial validations required by the US Department of Transportation, which oversees the Federal Aviation and Federal Railroad Administrations.

Today, less than a decade after it launched, FAST is at the center of a growing fatigue management industry that is making life safer and optimizing performance for warfighters, shift workers, professional athletes, pilots and their passengers, medical personnel and their patients, and many others. The list of FAST users includes Safeway, UPS, Johns Hopkins University, Harvard University, professional teams from baseball to football, all major US airlines, and nearly two dozen international carriers. FAST is also being used by the Federal Aviation Administration, National Aeronautical and Space Administration, Federal Railroad Administration, and other agencies in a variety of applications, from accident investigation to crafting and validating scientifically sound rules to reduce fatigue-related accidents and improve safety. Additionally, researchers are exploring the value of FAST to veterans suffering from PTSD and adults with autism. Closing the circle of this tremendous success story, FAST is currently being provided at no cost to all branches of the Armed Forces for use in mission planning and human resource management.

Joining Doug Eddy in his assessment, Traci Downs and Pat Byrne also fully credit the SBIR program for bringing FAST into the world. “The technology would never have been developed if it weren’t for the SBIR program,” says Downs, “and it saves lives every day.” Byrne agrees, adding, “The Air Force developed FAST for all the right reasons, to prevent pilot fatigue. But fatigue affects every human being. This is for all of us.”