Researchers will collect biological data - including brainwaves - from an array of sensors to determine aircraft operators' stress levels during simulations. (HUMAN Laboratory)
By monitoring everything from hormones to heartbeats as pilots fly simulated UAVs, scientists at the Air Force Research Laboratory hope to improve the tools and techniques used to control remotely piloted aircraft.
The project is running at the Human Universal Measurement and Assessment Network Laboratory, better known as the HUMAN Lab.
With setup behind them, researchers will soon begin collecting data – one gigabyte of it per second – as pilots undertake simulated tasks such as tracking or engaging multiple targets with multiple RPAs. The operators will be watched and tracked by EEG leads, eye-trackers, galvanic skin-response sensors, voice stress analysis tools and brainwave monitors.
Scientists can then examine when a person becomes overly stressed or unable to correctly execute his or her mission, according to Scott Galster of the applied neuroscience branch at AFRL.
Developers and trainers can use this information to design better equipped command stations or suggest techniques that operators can use to compensate.
Galster’s hypothesis is that although the experienced pilots will be able to juggle more remotely piloted aircraft, they will eventually succumb to overload just as newer operators do.
“It’s not how many – it’s how complex those things are,” Galster said. “Some people will go under with one, because that mission is too complex. I could do a swarm of 50 if nothing is going on, because it’s just monitoring.”
The information from various sensors is translated to one readable language – with time stamps and proper coding – by Aptima’s PM Engine. Historically, Galster said, scientists have focused on one or two sensor sets.
“But they haven’t integrated all these sensors together, which is what the HUMAN program does. I feel that we’re getting a more robust idea of what is going on with that operator by having that more complete picture.”
Ultimately, the goal of the HUMAN project is to help develop the next RPA control station by identifying when operators get stressed during the simulations, Galster said. “So we get that data, and then we can go to the system program office and say, ‘Here are your bottlenecks, but here are the ways that you can design around those bottlenecks in order to optimize the operator performance.’” This could mean improvements for control centers such as simple visualization of operator workload levels or tools that smooth handing over tasks for a limited amount of time.
“One of the other things that we’re looking at is how much information do you give the operator and can they self-regulate through biofeedback, through breathing exercises, through – maybe – brain stimulation,” Galster said. Brain stimulation refers to other research going on at AFRL, which has shown that running a small electrical current through the brain can improve attention and learning in ISR analysts.
Galster noted that both paid subjects and actual remote aircraft operators with varying levels of experience should start using the equipment soon, and data collection will start within the next few months. Next year, he hopes that improved biomarkers and bio-fluidic testing, which can determine the level of stress hormones such as cortisol in the blood, will add another dimension to the data. The program is expected to run through September 2013.