Shifting Sailors’ Workload to Robots Still Wishful Thinking
By Grace V. Jean
It’s the $64,000 question that Navy officials want answered: How many people does it take to operate an unmanned system?
The answer is important to the sea service because it is acquiring fleets of remotely-operated air, ground and maritime vehicles that will deploy from ships and collaborate on missions in the near-shore, coastal waterway and seaport environments in the coming years.
Unmanned vehicles are manpower-intensive technologies that require human control and monitoring often on a one-to-one basis. It typically takes two people — a pilot and a sensor operator — to fly and operate an unmanned aircraft from a ground control station.
“Taking two people out of the cockpit and putting them in the trailer is not where we want to go,” said Adm. Jonathan Greenert, vice chief of naval operations.
The Navy is reducing the number of crew on its ships. On the newest warship class, the littoral combat ship, a core crew of 40 is expected to drive and man the vessel while a supplementary mission crew of about 15 sailors will handle and operate all of the unmanned systems and sensors that rotate aboard in mission packages. The LCS will accommodate one of three interchangeable mission packages tailored for surface warfare, mine warfare and anti-submarine warfare.
Determining the optimal number of sailors for operating unmanned systems and reducing their workload are two of the Navy’s top research and development initiatives, Greenert told the National Defense Industrial Association’s Expeditionary Warfare Conference in Panama City, Fla. “It’s very much a technologically-driven process,” he said. “But it’s the people who will figure out how many people we need in the system. We need to do that right.”
The Government Accountability Office last month issued a report on the littoral combat ship that found the Navy still lacks a clear understanding of how LCS will operate with a smaller crew size. “The current Navy plan for a 40-person crew has not yet been validated by an analysis of the crew’s expected workload,” the report said. “If the operational concepts for personnel, training, and maintenance cannot be implemented as desired, the Navy may face operational limitations, may have to reengineer its operational concept, or may have to make significant design changes to the ship after committing to building almost half the class.”
The service is planning to build a 55-ship class of the shallow draft warship (see related story).
As the Navy deploys its first littoral combat ship, USS Freedom, on her maiden cruise to counter narco-trafficking in the Caribbean, technology development efforts are underway at the Office of Naval Research to reduce the workload on forthcoming mission package crews.
ONR has funded a variety of studies and projects on topics including the launch and recovery of unmanned systems, intelligent agent-based scheduling algorithms and collaboration technologies for LCS mission crews, said Sam Taylor, product line manager on the program.
“All those technologies have focused on reducing the workload, adding automation and adding autonomy where we can on board that ship to help relieve the workload of those sailors,” he said.
One of the prototypes is a collaborative command-and-control environment called SUMMIT, or Supervision of Unmanned Vehicles Mission Management by Interactive Teams. The system allows LCS mission package watch standers to display at their workstations the controls and video feeds for any of the unmanned vehicles that may be deployed off the ship, said officials at Lockheed Martin Corp.’s Advanced Technologies Laboratory, which is developing the technology. Operators also can bring up on their screens other task displays such as post-mission analysis tools.
The system will allow the crew to allocate their responsibilities in a variety of ways to fit a particular mission and the training of the individual watch team members, said Jerry Franke, manager for the lab’s human-robot interaction research area.
“If they’re able to do post-mission analysis at the same time as monitoring the sweep for the unmanned surface vehicle, for example, that would allow them to get through their tasking more rapidly. That improves the mission timeline,” he said.
For the mine warfare mission package, a watch team consists of seven sailors who will man the computer consoles inside the mission control center aboard LCS. One sailor functions as the team leader, or evaluator, who assigns tasks and keeps tabs on the mission. He typically would assign two sailors to control each unmanned system — one to steer the vehicle and the other to monitor and move the onboard sensors. Using SUMMIT, the evaluator from his workstation can “look in” on any of the watch standers’ displays and reallocate tasks as necessary.
In experiments conducted at the Naval Surface Warfare Center in Panama City and at Naval Base San Diego, last year, lab officials discovered that not all of the seven watch standers would be constantly available in the control center. Some might be dispatched to help launch or recover unmanned systems in the middle of a mission.
“Evaluators would combine the unmanned surface vehicle control and the payload operations onto one operator because the sweep operation is typically a low workload operation,” said Vera Zaychik Moffitt, the principal investigator on the SUMMIT program. “In most circumstances one person is enough to do that job.” Both sets of experiments showed that the watch team accomplished its missions faster and analyzed more of the data with the system.
Lab officials said the technology could function aboard either competing version of LCS — Lockheed Martin’s steel monohull variant or General Dynamics’ aluminum trimaran. The Navy is in the process of downselecting to one design.
Taylor added that ONR this year is integrating the best of breed technologies, including SUMMIT, into a package that it plans to demonstrate in June 2011 in Panama City. Following the demonstration, the technology is expected to transition to an acquisition program for incorporation onto LCS.
In the meantime, there are other efforts underway in Cherry Hill, N.J., where Lockheed ATL engineers are developing technologies that add “brains” to non-autonomous maritime vehicles and devising software to make robotic systems smarter so that fewer human operators have to monitor them.
“We have a problem where it could take a large number of people to operate unmanned vehicles,” said Adam Salamon, a member of the engineering staff in robotics control. “We are looking to invert that ratio so that a small number of people can operate a large number of vehicles,” he told an audience at an Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International symposium in Washington.
Engineers successfully migrated onto two commercial boats a technology initially developed to automate a Toyota Prius to compete in the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s Urban Challenge in 2007. The competition pitted robotic cars and trucks that could drive themselves in a race through a course that simulated military resupply missions.
The enabling technology, modular extensible toolkit for intelligent systems, or METIS, is a framework that provides autonomous vehicle control to a previously unintelligent machine. It functions as the machine’s brain, with algorithms that help the vehicle navigate, carry out tasks and make decisions when it encounters obstacles.
An 18-foot Sea Doo jet boat and a 34-foot Wellcraft Scarab boat automated by METIS participated in an experiment with the Navy two years ago to demonstrate how autonomous systems could help sailors conduct maritime and port security operations. The two boats along with a Desert Hawk unmanned air vehicle were tied together by a technology called intelligent control and autonomous re-planning of unmanned systems, or ICARUS. Developed by Lockheed Martin Aeronautical Systems, the autonomous mission management system dynamically planned and re-planned vehicle operations to meet task requests and enabled a single operator to play the role of a mission manager.
“ICARUS decreases UAS operator workload while enabling control of a team of unmanned assets performing complex missions in dynamically changing environments,” said Franke. Automation and human-robot collaboration tools are capabilities that inevitably need to be integrated into unmanned systems and operations, he added.
“The key thing that’s going to be a bottleneck to the use of unmanned systems … is the number of people required to operate them if we’re just having to operate them remotely through tele-operations,” Franke said. “There’s a certain level of autonomy that’s going to be needed to help off load the burden on operators.”