Researchers in the U.S. Army Research Laboratory's Manned/Unmanned Collaborative Systems Integration Laboratory, located at the University of Alabama in Huntsville, are conducting research to address the demands placed on Soldiers' mental resources required to manage attention, make decisions and coordinate crew activities and communication on the battlefield.

The overall goal of the laboratory, which is the result of collaboration between ARL, the university and the Aviation and Missile Research, Development and Engineering Center, is to investigate how Soldiers utilize manned and unmanned systems teaming to accomplish a specified objective using established tactics, techniques and procedures.

According to Dr. Thomas Davis, chief of the Weapons Branch within ARL's Human Research and Engineering Directorate at Redstone Arsenal, Ala., "researchers seek to identify those aspects that benefit the Soldier and those aspects which potentially could hinder their mission."

The creation of the Manned/Unmanned Collaborative Systems Integration Laboratory began over a decade ago, when Davis was the lead human factors engineer in support of the Robotics Systems Joint Project Office (RS JPO).

"In this capacity, I was part of an interdisciplinary engineering team tasked to develop virtual trainers to support tactics, techniques and procedures for Soldiers and Marines using robotic systems being developed by the RS JPO," said Davis.

Davis and his fellow researchers then indentified AMRDEC's Army Game Studio as a plausible entity to develop the virtual trainers in hopes of leveraging its gaming expertise.

After development of the first training simulator, RS JPO, management recognized the need to have an integrated approach to allow Soldiers and Marines to train operating both air and ground teleoperated systems, such as ground robots and unmanned aerial systems, given the increased use of unmanned aerial systems in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Thus, the Manned/Unmanned Collaborative Systems Integration Laboratory was established.

However, shortly after the laboratory was up and running, it was relocated from Redstone Arsenal to Warren, Mich. as part of the Base Realignment and Closure.

Since 2009, amidst budgetary constraints, Davis has worked in the background to convince ARL management to fund reproducing the Manned/Unmanned Collaborative Systems Integration Laboratory. Last year, he received $80,000 in funding to do just that.

The laboratory currently has two studies, which investigate Soldier-machine interfaces with the aim of improving effectiveness. The first study, which is being conducted in support of the Armament Research, Development and Engineering Center at Picatinny Arsenal, N.J., involves the high-fidelity environment of the laboratory.

The high-fidelity environment allows for the investigation of the ability of gunners to judge the relative distance and orientation of targets at range.

"This will be used to improve the machine assisted firing patterns and fire control systems for future airburst munition systems by accounting for the initial uncertainty of targeting," Davis stated.

The collaboration with the University of Alabama in Huntsville is a key aspect of this study, as it gives access to student participants -- who have grown up playing video games -- to enable better measurement of human performance.

The data collected from the student participants will be used in the development of Warfighter systems that can aid in increasing the effectiveness of Soldier teaming, decision making and overall performance.

The second experiment to be conducted in the laboratory will explore how to design the next generation of control interfaces for unmanned aerial vehicles.

"One method that is being investigated is the idea of cognitively tailoring the interface to each specific user of the system so that the information presented to the person is tailored to the way he or she specifically prefers to have information presented and organized," Davis said.

This study is being conducted in support of the Program Executive Office for Aviation's desire to build a universal ground control station that will be used to operate multiple unmanned aerial system platforms.

According to Davis, additional collaborations with the laboratory are already in the works to further its capabilities.

After a recent tour of the laboratory, Robert A. Altenkirch, president of the University of Alabama in Huntsville, requested that ARL expand its collaboration with the university by integrating the laboratory's capabilities with the university's Cave Automatic Virtual Environment (CAVE).

According to the university's website, the CAVE, a three-sided virtual reality chamber complete with directional aural effects courtesy of surround sound, "makes it possible to go where it is otherwise impossible to go, view what has not yet been built, try out what is still conceptual and train for situations yet to arise, and to do it all in a virtual reality that is close to authentic."

"The tour of the laboratory with Dr. Altenkirch was an important opportunity to showcase the capabilities of the laboratory along with the technical expertise of the ARL's Aviation and Missile Command Field Element scientists, engineers and technical staff. Moreover, this opportunity served to foster the collaboration between ARL and the University of Alabama in Huntsville," stated Davis.

Davis is confident and excited about the current projects and future possibilities that exist for the Manned/Unmanned Collaborative Systems Integration Laboratory, which he said would not be possible without the support of its partners.