Behind the Curtain: the Warfighter Effectiveness Research Center

At first glance, it may seem strange to discover research involving robots, special ops communications devices, or a self-driving Tesla automobile coming out of the Air Force Academy’s Department of Behavioral Sciences and Leadership.

But the unstoppable advance of warfighter technology is putting increased demands on the psychological and physical abilities of the men and women who are being tasked to use it.

The department’s Warfighter Effectiveness Research Center (WERC) is a second home to more than 100 cadets who are using a cross-disciplinary approach to research projects that could have far-reaching effects on the future of modern warfare. The move toward collaborating with fully autonomous systems, including self-driving cars and self-flying F-16s, pushes the envelope of human-machine teaming (HMT). From a warfighter’s perspective, the one who masters the HMT frontier has a tactical advantage that could tip the scales of modern warfare.

Enter, the Wizard of Oz

With the flick of a switch, three 72-inch monitors and the cockpit console of a flight simulator come to life, providing a pilot’s view from the seat of an F-16. The monitors surround a dynamic motion crew seat that translates simulator signals into realistic motion sensations that a fighter pilot experiences during various flight maneuvers.

Delving deeper into HMT technology, researchers are creating situations that an F-35 pilot might experience when flying in a formation that includes unmanned F-16s.

“The Air Force’s vision is to have a piloted F-35 teamed with two to four non-piloted F-16s,” says Maj. Chad Tossell, assistant professor and WERC director. “The technology is there, but we need to make sure that we don’t leave the human out of the equation. So how do they plan together, how do they build trust, how do they train together, how do they communicate, and how do they execute and then debrief? A lot of these design guidelines aren’t out there yet.”

The flight simulator gives researchers the ability to control the interactive environment and record the results.

“It’s a kind of Wizard-of-Oz situation.” Tossell says. “Behind the curtain, we have a person playing the role of a robot. We can assess various communications methods and supply data to show which of those are most effective.”

The motion crew seat, provided to the Academy by ACME Worldwide Enterprises, helps the Air Force explore new ways of increasing warfighter effectiveness while collecting information that benefits the manufacturer as well.

“It’s a great symbiotic relationship,” Tossell says. “We are able to do studies associated with the chair to help us collect data on important problems we are trying to solve, but then it’s also important to ACME. As we get the results, we provide them with data and discussion on the chair’s functionality.”

What’s research without duct tape?

A battered, grey fighter helmet sits on a folding table in the WERC, looking more like a Saturday garage sale find than an important research model that could be incorporated into evolving F-35 technology. A thin layer of foam, covered in silver duct tape, conceals a forehead sensor that monitors the pilot’s pulse, oxygen levels and other vital signs during a flight.

The gravity-defying maneuvers of an F-16 capable of traveling at nearly twice the speed of sound puts pilots at risk of gravity induced loss of consciousness (G-LOC). Special anti-g flight suits, breathing techniques and muscle contractions help pilots counter the effects of g-force hypoxia, but sensors in the helmet, breathing mask and oxygen tube can alert the pilot and the aircraft itself to an impending G-LOC emergency.

In 2011, the Air Force grounded its fleet of 170 F-22s because pilots were becoming hypoxic.

“The F-22 had thousands of sensors in it, but zero sensors on the pilot,” says Dr. Victor Finomore, a civilian researcher coordinating WERC projects. Research and investigation into the problem led to the installation of an automatic oxygen backup system in the F-22s.

Research to perfect flight helmet sensor technology is an ongoing priority in the WERC, with cadets conducting studies in and out of the flight simulator to collect data on pilot attention and workload. WERC research has been incorporated into helmets that are now being flight tested by Air Force pilots.

Out of the clouds and into the mud

Members of the Academy’s Sandhurst Competition Team, a special cadet unit that trains to compete in a rigorous, inter-service military skills competition at West Point each year, marched out to the rugged obstacle course in Jacks Valley to field test two Android Tactical Assault Kit (ATAK) communications devices that were developed in the WERC.

“We’re working on some wearable technology for the special operations field, designing software that can be loaded into a commercially available smart phone that will allow the operators to do a lot of their tasks right on their person,” says Jacob Riley, Class of 2017, who did his senior capstone project on special ops field communications. “They can coordinate evacuations, navigate, and talk to each other right on their phones. It’s some really cool technology that would really help them in the field.”

Riley and a team of six cadets created two models — one that attaches to the wrist and another adapted to fit into a fold-out pocket on the chest. Sandhurst team members put the devices to the test, climbing over barriers, crawling across rough terrain, and moving through the area using ATAK technology for navigation and communications.

“We are in the process of analyzing our data, but so far it looks like the chest configuration is the best option,” Riley says. “We plan to share our results with the Air Force Research Laboratory so that they have supporting data to move forward with one specific design for this wearable technology. We will also be sharing our results with the special operators who have assisted us in this project along the way.”

Isn’t an airplane just a car with wings?

There’s a lot of buzz within the WERC about the addition of a self-driving Tesla vehicle to the Academy’s research arsenal. The implications for advanced HMT research and evolving warfighter technology are far-reaching.

“We’re trying to build trust between autonomous systems and humans,” Tossell says. “We can put people into some risky scenarios in the flight simulator, but there are really no consequences if something goes wrong. It’s not a self-flying F-16, but the Tesla provides another level of autonomy and automation that we can use to assess things like establishing trust between autonomous systems and humans by simply having someone get into the vehicle and letting it take them to another location.”

Thinking out loud about possible Tesla research scenarios that mimic manned and unmanned teaming, Tossell sits back in his chair with a smile and imagines.

“Picture this,” he says. “We have the Tesla with these drones in the trunk and then, at some point, we have the drones coming out of the trunk and being controlled by the operator. Now, the Tesla is self-driving in a lot of ways, but you still have to maintain certain awareness. We want to amp up the automation of the Tesla and see what that allows as far as mental resources for the operator to focus on these other self-flying drones.”

The Air Force Office of Scientific Research provided funds for the Tesla vehicle, investing in the Academy’s growing success in HMT studies. The WERC staff expects to welcome the Tesla to the team this fall.

And of course, there are robots

Robots play an important role in HMT research. Friendly sidekicks like NAO, a 22-inch-tall robot created by Aldebaran Robotics and renamed Chris (after former WERC director Lt. Col. Chris McClernon) by the WERC team, display human behaviors, speech, movements and responses that can be personalized by researchers to help them collect data on human-machine interaction. The WERC is home to six robots, including Baxter, a life-size collaborative robot that is being used in a variety of studies.

“We want to enhance learning and cultivate teaming with machines,” says Dr. Kerstin Haring, a civilian researcher who coordinates robotic and virtual reality studies. “Instead of using them as tools like vacuum cleaners, we want to create a team. This is tricky enough with humans, but now, with human-machine teaming, it’s quite a challenge.”

Some people respond to Chris as if he were a child or maybe a pet. To the hardened researcher, he is a social agent, but when Chris suddenly pipes up and says, “I like pizza!” you have to laugh.

“We anthropomorphize the robots very strongly,” Haring says. “Chris is inherently very social. You just can’t help but like him.”

When Academy Superintendent Lt. Gen. Michelle Johnson ’81 visited the neighboring Machine Autonomy, Reasoning, Vision and Learning Laboratory (MARVAL), Chris was stationed by the door to greet her.

“The robot saluted, stood at attention and said, ‘Good morning, General Johnson, welcome to the MARVAL lab.’ And the general saluted back,” Haring says. “It was a very natural reaction. She saw the salute and she saluted back.”

Beyond the “fun-factor” of working with a robot that likes pizza, Haring’s research is unlocking important insights into HMT interaction.

“Anything we can do to enhance learning, teaming and collaboration with machines, we are highly interested in,” she says. “We want people to feel like, ‘Yeah, we’re a team.’” Broader horizons

The WERC collaborates with a variety of joint military operations, universities and private industry partners, including Honeywell Aeronautics, Bennett Aerospace, Tesla and Lockheed Martin, manufacturer of the F-35 Lightning II fighter.

Cadet and faculty research advances the center’s mission to enhance warfighter effectiveness while providing valuable data that can benefit fellow researchers and contribute to advances in warfighter technology. Interacting directly with corporate leaders has broadened the perspective of the WERC.

Bob Witwer, vice president of Advanced Technology for Honeywell Aerospace, recently spoke to cadets in the Department of Behavioral Sciences and Leadership, challenging them to develop innovative thinking through a journey of lifelong learning.

“The more you know in all kinds of domains, not just the ones you study, but in politics, the arts, the opposite sex — you pick it — the more you learn about stuff, the broader your innovation playing field is and the more probability you have of making unique connections,” he said.

Mark Howes ’75 served in the Air Force for five years, then launched into a stellar business career that included posts as the vice president of integrated delivery system at Honeywell Aerospace and president of Honeywell Aerospace Asia-Pacific Region.

Howes recently embarked on a path to re-engage with the Air Force Academy in a more significant way and became uniquely involved in the research center.

“The value of having someone like Mr. Howes as a champion has been huge,” Tossell says. “Just from talking to him and getting a sense of things he cares about and how he sees things strategically, I’ve gained a lot. It’s been great to get these lessons on corporate thinking and the bigger picture. Mr. Howes has business connections all over the world and he’s helping us reduce the insulation between cadets and global activities.”

Expanding business connections also opens new doors for collaboration between the WERC and corporations that are on the leading edge of new technology that may have warfighter applications.

“I never thought I’d be wearing this uniform, collaborating with Tesla and so many other unique partners on projects,” Tossell says. “It’s providing environments for cadets to be more innovative in designing effective solutions for the warfighters to gain the edge. Cadets also gain immense benefits from being involved with projects outside of the classroom that impact real operators and missions.”

Giving back

Mark Howes designated a gift to the Department of Behavioral Sciences and Leadership through the USAFA Endowment. His support served a two-fold purpose of enhancing the work of the research center and developing leaders of character to thoughtfully manage emerging technology. Howes recently embarked on a path to re-engage with the Air Force Academy in a more significant way and became uniquely involved in the research center.

Drawing from his Academy, Air Force and business experiences, Howes recognizes the importance of having men and women who follow a moral compass standing behind both interpersonal and HMT equations.

“Every weekend, as I would prepare for the business week to come, I would start my notes by writing down these phrases: Integrity First, Service Before Self (one of the great secrets of leadership) and Excellence in All We Do,” Howes says of his years as a leader in the aerospace industry.

Academy graduates across the spectrum share Howes’ warfighter ethos, making it easy for him to encourage them to invest in the future of the Academy by giving back.

“As graduates of the Academy, we are part of a group of people who share this predisposition to do the right thing — especially when it is hard — when others step back,” Howes says. “Doing our parts to support, build upon, improve, reinforce, enable and contribute to this process is worthy of our time and treasure. Engaging is in many ways an opportunity to invest in the capabilities of talented future leaders and contribute to the future of our nation.”

*This article is an excerpt from the June 2017 edition of Checkpoints magazine

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