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Air Force Research Lab Focusing on Human Performance Technologies
By Vivienne Machi



The often overlooked field of human performance monitoring is one of several cutting-edge technologies the Air Force Research Laboratory is focusing on — along with autonomous systems, hypersonics, electronic warfare and more — as part of the department-wide third offset strategy, the lab's commander said Oct. 19.

"Somebody asked me at a panel … what do we not talk about, and I actually think it's human performance," Maj. Gen. Robert McMurry Jr. said at an National Defense Industrial Association executive breakfast in Washington, D.C. 

Measurements, tests and evaluations are conducted "on every system we have, except the person," he said. 

"We are now creating sensors that can, through basically sweat analysis and pulse tracking, look at whether somebody's really at the top of their game. And if they're not, start to figure out how to help them get there," he said.

AFRL's human performance wing 
at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio in 2015 conducted the first successful human trials of a usable sweat sensor prototype, according to the Air Force. The team collaborated with researchers from the University of Cincinnati to develop the sensor.

McMurry said he is often asked what technologies will be needed to face the challenges of the third offset — the Defense Department's strategy, that attempts to offset a diminished military force by investing in new and emerging technologies. 

"The answer is, bluntly, I don't know … if you talk to someone and they say, 'We know exactly what the third offset is' … I think you may want to question that," he said. "But what I am pretty confident of is that the elements of establishing a third offset are going to be founded on … efforts that the Air Force Research Lab has been working on for the last three decades."

The area of additive manufacturing — that includes 3-D printing, rapid prototyping and layered manufacturing — "is probably the highest buzz slang term area" of technologies needed to overcome the challenges of the third offset, he said. "Everybody's excited about that."

Those efforts will particularly benefit the way the service manages its supply lines, and will help in areas of sustainment, he said.

"Anything that doesn't have a high-performance demand in terms of … structural criticality, we've been able to build solutions pretty quickly," he said. The laboratory is also working on identifying where additive manufacturing could fail, he said.

"We're also trying to figure out … where is the variability, how do we determine whether these systems are going to build something reliably," he said.

Autonomous systems — including man-machine teaming, machine-to-machine teaming and information-sharing across those teams — will help address future challenges, and AFRL is conducting research on how to establish trust between man and machine, McMurry said. 

The "lead candidate" for autonomous applications is the laboratory's "loyal wingman" program, where a remotely piloted aircraft could assist a jet fighter in a variety of missions, he said.

"We're really looking at something with the ability to pilot almost any … aircraft and operate as a wingman," he said, adding that this concept is at "the high end" of how autonomous systems could help airmen. On the low end, robotic systems could help with counterinsurgency efforts in urban environments, he said.

Artificial intelligence is an area where private companies including Google, Apple and Amazon are more financially capable of conducting research and development, but an office like the Defense Innovation Unit-Experimental (DIUx), which has recently championed by Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, could help coordinate with those companies to bring the technology to the department, McMurry said.

"I cannot outbid those guys," he said. "Being the driver, probably not going to happen, so the question is, how do I set an environment that allows them to collaborate with us … where I can kind of keep track of what's going on without jeopardizing" the companies' investments or national security, he said.

"This is McMurry's opinion, but that's a little bit of where the secretary's going with DIUx," he said.

Hypersonics, directed energy weapons and simulations are other areas AFRL is "deeply engaged in" that will come into play in the third offset, McMurry said.

Photo: An Air Force Research Laboratory researcher holds up a sweat sensor prototype. (Air Force)

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