Tuesday, August 07, 2012

Too Many Screens: Why Drones Are So Hard To Fly, So Easy To Crash

AOL Defense 7 August 2012 by Sydney J Freedberg Jr

The US military depends on drones. But amidst the justifiable excitement over the rise of the robots, it's easy to overlook that today's unmanned systems are not truly autonomous but rather require a lot of human guidance by remote control -- and bad design often makes the human's job needlessly awkward, to the point of causing crashes. Fixing that is the next big challenge for the unmanned industry.

"Too many screens with too much information, folks" -- that's the bottom line, said Col. John Dougherty, a Predator operations commander with the North Dakota National Guard, speaking at a workshop on the first day of 2012 conference of the Association for Unmanned Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) here in Vegas. "I am tired of all these black panels all over the place," Dougherty went on, urging designers to "de-clutter for sanity." But instead, he lamented, "they keep strapping the stuff on," adding more and more sub-systems each with its own unique and user-unfriendly display.

"Human factors was not integrated into the original design of the Predator," Dougherty said. "They were never given the time," because what was originally a technology demonstration project proved so valuable it was rushed into widespread use. As a result, he said, the percentage of major mishaps caused by "human factors" is, ironically, higher for Predators than for manned aircraft.

It's even harder to design a control system for troops operating unmanned systems in the field, instead of from a relatively pristine command center. Something as simple as having to look down at a handheld display can distract a foot soldier from the threats around him, and the light from the screen can give away his position at night, said Army Staff Sergeant Stanley Sweet, an unmanned ground vehicle trainer at Fort Benning and veteran of two tours in Iraq.

Often, Sweet went on, when engineers develop control systems, "they want to use a touchscreen, which looks neat -- [but] the sand, the dirt, the mud, how is it going to affect the screen?" he asked. "How is it going to hold up? My experience is they don't." Controls meant for foot troops have to be physically rugged and conceptually uncomplicated, more like game controllers than like militarized iPads. Infantrymen have no time to navigate complex menus while wondering, "Oh, by the way am I going to get shot at," said Sweet. "If the technology is slow, it will not be used."


 More autonomy isn't always the solution, however. When operators do have to take more direct control of unmanned systems, they are badly hampered simply by not being in the vehicle. "In a prior life I was in the airplane, I was there, so a whole bunch of information was being fed to me simply because I was in it," like whether the aircraft was accelerating or not, said Col. Dougherty, a former F-16 pilot. When the operator is in a command post on the ground, however, his screens may tell him the vehicle is moving ahead or swiveling its sensor array, but his inner ear and his peripheral vision are both telling him he's standing still.

Some of the solutions on offer at the workshop included stereo images to improve depth perception, audio cues in three dimensions to alert operators to what's happening behind them, and virtual-reality "telepresence" goggles that let the operator turn his head to see to the side, instead of sitting still and watching images slide past on a screen.

What's essential, said Dougherty, is to break down the cultural preconceptions in the Air Force and elsewhere about what a proper control interface looks like. What works for manned aircraft may not translate to unmanned. "I don't need a cockpit to feel good about myself," he said. "What you need is an appropriate interface, [whether] it's a dome that I'm immersed in or it's a series of flat panels or something that comes down over my eyes with gloves." Our thinking about how best to control the new unmanned technology is still catching up to the possibilities.

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