Harnessing human systems integration to improve critical military systems

By May 23, 2017August 31st, 2018Science and Technology
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Military technology, in any form, has at least one major requirement: It has to be usable by Soldiers.

By John Higgins, PEO IEW&S

Within the Program Executive Office for Intelligence, Electronic Warfare and Sensors (PEO IEW&S), this critical need is met through human systems integration (HSI). The process and purpose of HSI is to incorporate human usability into system definition, design, development and evaluation, yielding equipment that’s easier to operate, maintain and sustain. HSI also can increase efficiency across the board, from reducing the time it takes to train on a piece of equipment to making it accessible to a broader range of Soldiers.

To understand the importance of the interface to the Soldier, we need only look to the AR family of rifles. Over time, they have been altered and augmented to suit the Soldier’s needs. The initial design of the M16 was informed by mission needs, a lighter battle rifle with more ammunition. As the weapon and the missions requiring it evolved, it became even lighter, more comfortable and more durable.

The rifle is relatively simple however, compared with the vast array of technologies available to the modern warfighter from not only PEO IEW&S but other commands and military laboratories. The PEO brings Soldiers together with professional in the fields of design, engineering and psychology to ensure the best interface for equipment.

“Our goal is to keep Soldiers and their needs in mind throughout the design process,” said Diane Quarles, a research psychologist with the U.S. Army Research Laboratory’s Human Research and Engineering Directorate.

“I’ve been able to apply techniques learned in training and education, such as cognitive psychology, learning and memory.” said Quarles. “A good user interface starts with understanding how your users think.” Quarles worked for 25 years in consumer product development, working with engineers and developers on cellphones and other products. “Years ago, we had problems with users not being able to successfully conference,” said Quarles. “When our developers sat and watched the user go through what they were doing and complaining, that fix got implemented.”

Now for Quarles, the users are Soldiers and the equipment is a great deal more complex. Sharing this mission with her is Pamela Savage-Knepshield, a senior research psychologist with the U.S. Army Research, Development and Engineering Command (RDECOM) with 29 years of experience in telecom design.

“One of the biggest challenges for users of military systems is the additional cognitive workload imposed by operating in a system-of-systems architecture,” said Knepshield. “Very few of our systems operate in isolation, but this is how they are designed and often tested. Our systems need to incorporate a wizard-like or automated approach to troubleshooting and system configuration. Our HFEs [human factors engineers] need to be involved earlier in the acquisition process to identify user interface requirements and conduct early user needs analyses to inform design. Throughout the design process, HFEs need to be conducting usability studies to incrementally refine system design—especially for the most frequently used system functionality.”

Sgt. 1st Class David Hoisington, enlisted adviser for command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance and the senior enlisted adviser for the Human Research and Engineering Directorate, knows how important HSI is, and he’s seen Knepshield’s observations firsthand.

“Generally the first thing a Soldier does is try to make sure it functions. If it works, they will accept it, sometimes to their own detriment.” Hoisington, a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom, admitted. “I’ve seen systems with a haphazard graphic user interface (GUI) that’s hard to use, but it functions, so the Soldier takes it. It might take the Soldier longer to accomplish a mission than it would if they had a better GUI, but at the same time the Soldier says, ‘I got a mission to accomplish, I’ll take what I can get to accomplish that mission.’”

Incorporating the principles of human systems integration into the development process yields a weapon that’s easier to operate, maintain and sustain. (Digital illustration by Solari Creative Sciences)

Incorporating the principles of human systems integration into the development process yields a weapon that’s easier to operate, maintain and sustain. (Digital illustration by Solari Creative Sciences)

Hoisington sees how technology can benefit Soldiers. “If I could design the perfect system, it would take data for your day-to-day Soldier, how they’re doing, their stress levels, things like that, it would measure that and provide that to the leaders. There are a lot of times on the battlefield you see a Soldier go from perfectly good to seeing something happen in their environment to overstressed—from green to red to black—in a matter of minutes, sometimes shorter. If you as a leader can see that, you can remove that Soldier from the battlefield before he injures himself or others.”

The stress management Hoisington alludes to is actually a key part of HSI, even at the earliest stages. “We don’t want something that’s going to add to cognitive overload,” said Quarles. “We just want to be able to provide user interfaces that don’t cause the user to have to think a lot. A system can be as complex as you want underneath the hood, but whatever the user sees shouldn’t be.”

Cross-capability isn’t going away anytime soon. To go back the M16 and M4, we need only look to the rail system, now ubiquitous on many battle rifles, to see how important it is. Different tools on the rifle make it more compatible with different missions, and Soldiers and the rail system makes that happen. PEO IEW&S is incorporating that cross-capability into the tools it’s developing in the emerging field of electromagnetic warfare. Its Electronic Warfare Planning and Management Tool (EWPMT) is an “inherently collaborative” program, said Kent Gibson, chief engineer for the Product Manager for Electronic Warfare Integration. The EWPMT has to deliver data from across the electromagnetic spectrum in an understandable and clear way. To do that, it has to function less like a piece of software and more like a crew-served weapon.

“You need more than just the single Soldier to make all this work.” said Gibson. “It requires the network to be up and operational in order to pass messages around, in order to collaborate, to get reports from the different sensors. It requires our partners that are providing the hardware where virtual machines run. They have to provide some service-level agreement or service back to our program. The sensors have to be compliant with a standard of marking up their reports, sending back triggers and alerts that are of importance to the spectrum managers, the electronic warfare officer and the intelligence analyst.”

Warfighters have come to expect the same user experience that they have become accustomed to using apps on the web and smartphones, said Savage-Knepsheiled. “They are much more critical of systems that are not intuitive and that do not facilitate their ability to leverage and transfer the training that they have obtained on commercial systems to the systems they use on the battlefield.”

“PEO IEW&S is looking to broaden the HSI program across its portfolio and believes it is a critical part of the development phase of acquisition,” said Mark Kitz, division chief of the Systems of Systems Engineering team at PEO for Enterprise Information Systems. “We are very proud of the HSI accomplishments by the program managers, and since HSI is now a requirement in the DOD 5000 process, it will be a staple in our engineering policies going forward.”

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