By Maureena Thompson, Army Futures Command
Dr. Mike Wilson knows what it is like to navigate a Black Hawk helicopter through inky night skies and turbulent weather conditions.
Wilson, a research psychologist at the U.S. Army Aeromedical Research Laboratory, served for 20 years as an Army operational aviator before earning a doctoral degree in human factors psychology from Clemson University. He now spends his days investigating ways to improve aeromedical missions, including by enhancing the nighttime navigational capabilities available to pilots.
“As you can imagine, flying at night when it’s dark and you can’t see can be very challenging,” Wilson said.
While Wilson’s experience has given him invaluable insight into the operational uncertainties military pilots may face in the cockpit, his education – which focused on applying engineering, ergonomics and psychology to the understanding of how humans can interact most effectively with machines – has provided him with unique expertise on ways to alleviate functional constraints through user-informed solutions.
Since the 1980s, the Army has utilized third-generation, helmet-mounted, aviation-friendly night vision goggles in helicopters to overcome visibility constraints, helping the Army aviator to “own the night.” However, Wilson explained that with new threats emerging and more advanced technological tools available, “owning the night isn’t good enough anymore; we need to be able to own the degraded visual environment.”
A degraded visual environment can result from suboptimal weather, such as smoke, dust, fog or rain. These atmospheric conditions strain Soldiers’ visibility and decrease their likelihood of being able to maneuver at ideal speed and with peak precision.
“If we can operate our helicopters in those types of environments, it’s going to give us an operational advantage as we fight and win the nation’s conflicts,” Wilson said, adding that the ability to medevac wounded Soldiers swiftly and safely despite degraded visual environments is also a priority concern.
Researchers at the lab are addressing the degraded visual environment challenge by assessing how pilots – particularly rotary-wing pilots, who fly closest to the ground – can use automated, multi-pronged systems to more accurately image what is in front of them, even amid obscuring factors.
By artfully harnessing and melding light detection and ranging, a remote sensing process that employs lasers to reflect energy and evaluate topography; radar, which detects the presence of objects using radio-wave technology; and information drawn from existing maps, terrain data and intelligence, aviators may be able to better identify and avoid otherwise concealed obstacles located around and ahead of them.
Researchers at the lab are also beginning to explore methods to improve real-time monitoring of operator states, such as through eye tracking or heartbeat monitoring, so that if a pilot is wounded or incapacitated, commanders would know immediately and would be able to enact follow-on protocols as appropriate.
The lab partners with other Army research and development labs to ensure that technological developments such as these are not only effective when tested by engineers and scientists, but also useful in – and highly adaptive to – the hands and eyes of the Soldier.
The U.S. Army Aeromedical Research Laboratory is based at Fort Rucker, Alabama, and has an overarching mission of identifying medical solutions for Soldiers that reduce health hazards, prevent and mitigate injury, enhance performance and save lives.
The laboratory and its approximately 180 personnel are part of the U.S. Army Medical Research and Development Command, which falls under U.S. Army Futures Command.