Protecting Navy Divers with AI

Computer scientists and environmental health experts hope to safeguard divers against waterborne pathogens.

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The U.S. Office of Naval Research has awarded University of Illinois Chicago researchers $725,000 to develop an artificial intelligence system that can help protect divers from waterborne bacteria, parasites, and other harmful pathogens and microbes.

Sailors are sent into all kinds of water as part of their service in the U.S. Navy, but they have limited resources to understand in real-time the health risks that may exist when they conduct underwater duties — everything from fleet maintenance and repairs to search and rescue and research missions. The most reliable water testing technologies typically rely on lab-based analysis of samples and scientists knowing which microbes to screen. But with dynamic weather, currents, water temperatures, and sewage and pollution factors, the exact condition of water, particularly of coastal water, at a specific time is hard to predict.

“By the time a water sample arrives at a lab and is tested, the conditions may have changed,” said Dr. Samuel Dorevitch, associate professor of environmental and occupational health sciences at the School of Public Health and co-principal investigator. “If Navy divers had real-time information, they could select the best protective equipment, dive duration and take other measures to prevent the various health issues, like heat stress or gastrointestinal, skin, and respiratory infections that may result from microbes in water.”

That’s where a new approach using artificial intelligence can make a difference.

“Artificial intelligence offers a way to synthesize a vast amount of information quickly for a specific calculation and this technology, if we can bring it to fruition, provides an opportunity for us to improve the tools available to the Navy,” said Isabel Cruz, distinguished professor of computer science at the College of Engineering and co-principal investigator.

The researchers hope that they can develop a system that can be used in any location by divers to analyze water conditions through a combination of user-provided and web-based information and human data, such as the age of the divers, their health, and the size of the diving team.

“This project is both exciting and challenging because of its multidimensionality,” Cruz said. “We hope to pull information from many sources that offer different types of data, and we will have to integrate data that are quite complex, heterogeneous, and often without metadata. We will build the artificial intelligence and machine learning methods in stages, and if we can teach our system to reliably and accurately filter and prioritize all these data for risk prediction, I think we will have something remarkable.”

“If we could provide divers or their commanders with a handheld device or app to evaluate the ever-changing ecosystem of a particular body of water and any potential health risks at the time they enter the water, they would be better able to plan their mission for optimal health and safety,” Dorevitch said. “For those in the Navy, getting in the water is not optional and anything we can do to aid quick, data-driven decision-making for mitigating health risk is beneficial.”

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