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What is a Pilot’s Favorite Wearable?

It used to be that if you wanted to see how a pilot was sleeping, your options were to 1) strap an actigraph on their wrist or 2) ask them. Actigraphs are wrist-worn devices designed for research that estimate sleep by tracking activity levels. Actigraphs have been a mainstay of objective real-world measurements of sleep since the 1980s. Aviation regulators have recommended that airlines collect sleep data with actigraphs during flight rosters that may be fatiguing. Of course, that was before consumer wearables like Fitbit or Apple Watch started collecting sleep data. Yes, yes, yes, you’ve already read our November blog and know all about the differences in actigraphy vs. wearables for aviation (https://www.saftefast.com/safte-fast-blog/what-does-the-end-of-the-actiwatch-mean-for-aviation). Today’s post is not about the devices; it’s about all the whippersnappers out there who would rather collect sleep data using their high-tech Dick Tracy smartwatches instead of buckling something that looks like a house arrest monitor to their wrist.

People have been asking about the viability of sleep data collected from smartwatches or sleep-tracking wearables more and more in the past couple of years. Particularly in aviation, pilots are already wearing a personal device and may be getting cranky about having to wear an actigraph too. Consumer technology is finally approaching accuracy that is comparable to actigraphy in a laboratory and at-home setting [1, 2]. These devices still need to be evaluated in an aviation environment to ensure that they can accurately collect sleep data in airplane mode or while crossing time zones, but the ability of the technology to detect sleep vs. wake is no longer the major problem with collecting data using consumer wearables.


The problem is that there are a lot of different wearables on the market. Which one should you pick? In an ideal data collection, the participants would all be wearing the same type of device. Consumer wearables generally score sleep using proprietary “black box” methods, meaning that the company does not tell you how sleep is measured. If participants are all wearing the same brand and version of a technology, at least you know that the sleep is being measured in the same way across the study population. However, since people have already started wearing their own preferred devices, it makes sense to focus on extracting data from the most popular wearables within the aviation community.


Determining pilots’ and crew members’ preferences for sleep-tracking wearable brands is the first question in IBR’s pilot survey. This survey is designed to determine: 1) which wearables the aviation community is already wearing; 2) what information they want from a wearable; and 3) under what circumstances crew would be willing to provide data from their personal devices for data collection to support fatigue risk management. The idea behind this survey is that by focusing on the most popular wearable(s) for a given population, we can reduce the burden of study participation, increase compliance, and thus, maximize data yield. The survey is completely anonymous, takes less than 5 minutes, and importantly, has scientific ethics approval. This last point means that the data from the survey can be openly shared at conferences, in scientific publications, and (dare I say) future blog posts!


The Institutes for Behavior Resources (IBR) science team has been conducting a series of surveys on the topic of demand for sleep-tracking wearables. The first survey assessed demand for wearables features and sleep tracking metrics within a population of field sleep researchers [3, 4]. Sleep researchers wanted longer battery life, nap detection as short as 20 minutes, and better assessment of total sleep time and objective sleep quality. Researchers did not care about sleep staging (light vs. deep sleep), most likely because these terms have been invented by the wearables companies and are not representative of laboratory measures of sleep depth. The next survey assessed the demand for wearables with scientific validation and endorsement in a general consumer population [5]. The most valuable sleep-tracking features in a general population were sleep duration and, ironically, sleep staging. Respondents valued scientific validation of sleep trackers against polysomnography and actigraphy and would pay more for a device that was endorsed by an academic institution, hospital, or professional society.


The previous surveys assessed demand for hypothetical wearables, but the current survey is the first in this line of research that asks respondents to name brands. This will give fatigue risk management researchers an idea of what devices are already working best in the aviation community. Consumers tend to abandon technology that they feel is inaccurate, so if a majority of pilots prefer one brand of device, that may indicate that it collects data well in an aviation environment. We can then follow up to evaluate the devices’ performance during operations, which is an important step toward legitimizing the technology for use in scientific research.


The results from this survey will also give us an idea of where to focus our energy to figure out data extraction techniques that are respectful of participants’ time and privacy. Currently, there’s no streamlined roadmap to pulling data from a wearable. It is our hope to eventually be able to develop a device-agnostic aggregator (meaning we can use the same method to pull data from an Apple watch as from a Garmin, Fitbit, WHOOP, or what have you) that can be used for fatigue risk management or academic purposes. Knowing which brands are already being used in the aviation community will provide a necessary jumping-off point for developing that methodology.


Surveys are only as good as the number of respondents. So, if you’re reading this and you’re a pilot or crew member in commercial, business, or military aviation who regularly travel for work, please take this anonymous survey. This project is not affiliated with any airline or aviation organization. Any pilots or crew members are eligible to participate. This survey should take appropriately 5 minutes to complete. Please feel free to share this survey with your colleagues as well. Even if you don’t care about consumer demand or streamlining data collection pipelines, please take the survey just to keep the SAFTE-FAST blog topics fresh.


References

1. Chinoy, E.D., et al., Performance of seven consumer sleep-tracking devices compared with polysomnography. Sleep, 2021. 44(5).
2. Chinoy, E.D., et al., Performance of Four Commercial Wearable Sleep-Tracking Devices Tested Under Unrestricted Conditions at Home in Healthy Young Adults. Nat Sci Sleep, 2022. 14: p. 493-516.
3. Devine, J.K., L.P. Schwartz, and S. Hursh, What do researchers want in a consumer sleep technology? Sleep, 2021. 44(5).
4. Devine, J.K., et al., Expert Demand for Consumer Sleep Technology Features and Wearable Devices: A Case Study. IoT, 2022. 3(2): p. 315-331.
5. Schwartz, L.P., et al., General Consumer Preferences for Sleep-Tracking Wearables: The Role of Expert Validation. 2023.

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