T.M.I., Robo-Dude

That's "too much information," for those of you over the age of fourteen. These days, information superiority is supposed to make U.S. military forces faster, smarter and more lethal and able to defeat more numerous foes on their own turf. But how much information can one soldier process, and how fast can he make decisions?


Unmanned vehicles sporting sophisticated sensors are key suppliers of new and more voluminous streams of info to grunts on the ground. But in addition to potentially overwhelming customers with too much information, robots require regular input from their human masters.

That's a key problem facing the engineers responsible for developing the Army's human-robot interfaces. At the U.S. Army Tank-Automotive Research, Development and Engineering Center in suburban Detroit, Gregory Hudas and his colleagues are trying to figure out what robots should be allowed to do on their own, and what they should ask permission for. The key factors are what human operators are comfortable with, and what they're capable of. "We must be aware of when they [soldiers] get overloaded."

To work out this problem, the folks at TARDEC have linked up two consoles representing the controls of a Future Combat Systems fighting vehicle. Each console boasts three tall touch-screen displays. At the center in front of a padded seat, there is a control stick similar to what you might see on an arcade game. The consoles include a simulation function, akin to a video game, that the TARDEC engineers use for tests.

On one screen, a TARDEC engineer representing an FCS crewman brings up an overhead map of the battlefield dotted with icons representing his vehicle and four robots that he's controlling. One is a Fire Scout aerial drone. The others are ground drones equipped with cameras and guns. On his other screens, the crewman can see what his robots are seeing in addition to what's outside his own vehicle. It's a massive amount of data for one man to process, and things are sure to get worse when he decides to send his drones on a reconnaissance mission, potentially forcing him to also coordinate the movements of five vehicles simultaneously while facing an elusive enemy on unfamiliar terrain.

Which is why the Army decided that each FCS vehicle would include two identical consoles. Side-by-side crewmen would share responsibility for all the functions described above. The Army believed that by coordinating their efforts, one two-man crew should be able to control 10 drones and keep up with all their data feeds.

But that's too many robots, Hudas says. Four drones is the realistic max. And a third crewman at an additional console is ideal. And that's assuming a minimal level of human intervention in the drones activities. Basically, you tell a drone what to do, confirm the command, then let it go. Now, if the drone wants to kill something, it's going to need a soldier's permission. But for surveillance and reconnaissance, it can make its own decisions. "With those applications," Hudas says, "we don't even want a soldier."

Thanks to TARDEC and other research organizations, the Army is making enormous strides in combining thinking men and thinking machines into one cohesive fighting force. That's the subject of a feature slated for our March issue. Stay tuned.

--David Axe, cross-posted at Ares and War Is Boring

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