WSU scientist supports Air Force human performance research

((Contributed by Tim Gaffney))

For combat pilots, the cockpit is a busy place.

The aircraft themselves are complex, fast-moving machines that demand the pilot’s attention. Then there’s the need to make sense of data coming in from radio, radar and other devices. And at critical times the pilot must avoid or take on enemy threats.

In these moments, a mistake can cost the aircraft, the mission, and human lives.

The same is true for operators of the rapidly growing fleets of unmanned aircraft. In both cases, the workload swings up and down during a mission and can suddenly spike, overwhelming the pilot or operator.

The Air Force has long seen operator overload as an important problem in the field of human performance. Its scientists have been looking for ways to monitor what they call an operator’s functional state so they can tell when one is reaching his or her limits. If a way can be found to do this, the thinking goes, advanced automation techniques might be able to ease the workload at critical moments.

A Wright State University professor’s project is supporting Air Force research efforts as a part of the new Human Performance Consortium, a collaboration between the Air Force Research Laboratory and a university-industry team led by the Wright State Research Institute.

The consortium supports research at the 711th Human Performance Wing at Wright-Patterson, where the service is consolidating related work from around the country under the 2005 Base Realignment and Closure Law. Last December, the Air Force awarded the consortium a five-year contract worth up to $6.4 million to study ways to improve human performance in dealing with terrorist threats, combat fatigue and other defense issues that will directly benefit the warfighter.

Ping He, Ph.D., is a professor in Wright State University’s Department of Biomedical, Industrial and Human Factors Engineering. His project involves a new approach to monitoring an operator’s brain activity.

“What the Air Force needs is technology to know the person’s mental capability – whether he or she is mentally overloaded and has a high probability of making a mistake very soon,” he says.

His method uses electroencephalography, or EEG, to monitor brain activity. Different areas of the brain control specific functions. When a person is busy with a particular task, the neurons in the part of the brain responsible for that task become more active, He says.

The EEG-based methods aren’t new, and the Air Force has used them for years. But He said the methods it has used aren’t up to this challenge.

“Until very recently and with the exception of only a few laboratories, the methods for EEG recording and analysis were not much different from those 50 years ago,” He says.

The main problem in EEG recording is that electrodes are placed on the scalp, while the signals come from inside the skull. As they pass through the skull and scalp, signals from different parts of the brain weaken and mix with each other.

He likens it to standing outside a house and listening to three violinists playing inside: “You hear the sound of all three violins, but you cannot accurately locate each violinist.”

He has proposed using many more electrodes – 128 instead of the traditional 19 – to help pinpoint the sources of EEG signals. Coupled with that will be the use of advanced signal processing methods to “de-blur” the signals and map their locations on the brain. This should yield a much sharper picture of brain activity – like being able to tell where the violinists are.

With this sharper view, He hopes to observe the functional relationship between different parts of the brain. “In a multitasking environment, different regions of the brain are working in a coordinated way,” He says. From this may come a better sense of when an operator is nearing overload.

That would be music to the Air Force’s ears.

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