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By testing cockpit-style biometric data, new flight simulation lab will work to better gauge pilot readiness and improve safety

The path to safer military flights, and inside pilots minds, might start with a pyramid of parcels and a scatter of box cutters, bolts and screws.

As Spring 2022’s semester started, Norwich University psychology professor Dr. Kevin Fleming and U.S. Space Force Lt. Col. Chuck Hancox gathered in a fourth-floor Dewey Hall classroom to unload components for a flight simulation lab. The five computer workstations would mimic flying F-16 fighter jets, and gather data to gauge pilots’ alertness, dexterity, and performance

There was so much new stuff it seemed Santa Claus had lost his way (so much for GPS) and arrived in Northfield during the intersemester break. A major Small Business Innovation Research grant from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, through NUARI and in partnership with Spotlight Labs, funded the project. Judicious online shopping, done in October to avoid yuletide supply-chain snags, brought the haul to campus before Christmas eve. 

“We can measure things you can’t put in the cockpit.” Kevin Fleming, Norwich University psychology professor

For hours, Fleming and Hancox would slash through packing tape, peel off labels, discard polystyrene blocks, tear open bags and unload.

Fleming had ordered new computer towers with fast chips, suitable for video games and flight simulation. He had curved computer monitors and authentic flight gadgetry — joysticks for control, moving-hammer throttles for speed and metal-pedal rudders for direction. All were top-of-the-line, heavy-duty replicas of real F-16 grips and controls.

A phalanx of taller boxes contained chairs with attachable steel plates for mounting computer keyboards. Fleming said the chair boxes, which by this reporter’s reckoning weighed more than 40 pounds each.

flight sim lab 3 min
Matthew Thomas, a Norwich University associate professor of psychology, right, hopes to help his colleague, Dr. Kevin Fleming, better understand pilot behavior buy studying data from the new Dewey Hall flight simulation lab. (Photo by Mark Collier/Norwich University.)

Inverting the chair boxes, and pulling out seatbacks and cushions, released showers of zip-top plastic baggies packed with screws, bolts and an Ikea-esque array of Allen wrenches.

Fleming said the new lab, which will use Microsoft Flight Simulator software, had been planned for more than a year. He and Brian Bradke, a former U.S. Air Force pilot and F-16 pilot instructor and Norwich University professor applied for a $1 million Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency grant. Bradke applied as chief operating officer and executive vice president of Spotlight Labs, an armed forces-veteran-owned human-performance analytics and sensor company. 

From 2014 to 2020, Bradke was an assistant professor of mechanical engineering in Norwich University’s David Crawford School of Engineering.

Norwich University’s new flight simulation lab will test skills for a 15-student class composed of mostly pilot aspirant Air Force ROTC cadets who will cycle in during five-hour lab sessions on Wednesdays and Fridays. 

Particularly, Fleming said, Norwich University’s lab will use software-embedded trackers and wearable technology to watch biometrics, including eye blinks and reaction times, to gauge pilot health and fatigue during virtual missions and monitor radiofrequency radiation’s effect on cognition and flight-readiness.

“We can measure things you can’t put in the cockpit,” Fleming said. “Once we get all those measures, and we know how they’ve performed flightwise, we’ll run massive correlations (and) see what matches up. Good flight performance, good cognitive performance.”

Basement discoveries

When Bradke, who had researched and studied biometrics, was at Norwich, he and Fleming had run biology and physiology labs in basements of many campus buildings, including Dewey, Ainsworth, Bartoletto and Flint halls to measure eye movements, brain waves (through electroencephalograms), galvanic skin response (to gauge emotional intensity) and heart rates. The professors were watching for signals of fatigue or degrading alertness, both potential pilot hazards. 

“Interestingly,” Fleming said, “when we were in the basement of Ainsworth our research in that dark, wet, and noisy labyrinth under the pipes was noted by the Navy with (its) interest in developing mitigating strategies for human deprivations on nuclear submarines.”

flight sim lab 2 min
Cockpit-weight stick-and-throttle assemblies and foot pedals give flight simulator exercises in Norwich University’s Dewey Hall a sense of authenticity. (Photo by Mark Collier/Norwich University.)

With Spotlight Labs, which has headquarters in Haddonfield, New Jersey, and an engineering and flight test hub in Berlin, Vermont, Bradke has studied hypoxia — oxygen deprivation that can happen during flights thousands of feet above sea level.

An engineers-and-pilots team at the company developed SPYDR, a helmet-mounted hypoxia sensor, slightly smaller than a quarter, slightly larger than a dime, that

gathers human biometric data. The sensor also detects and warns pilots of imminent incapacitation and records high-fidelity flight data for postflight analysis and improved flight outcomes.

Spotlight Labs’ website says the U.S. Air Force has used SPYDR on more than 100 F-16 sorties. Fleming, who will cede his Psychology Department chairmanship to focus on running the sim lab, said Norwich’s biometric data, will complement Spotlight Labs’ findings. 

Better knowledge may save lives. F-16 systems fly so fast (up to 1,319 mph), run on bogglingly complex systems and leave little room for error; even small performance errors can result in injury to people and planes. 

“We, Norwich and Spotlight Labs, are very interested in developing the technologies that will allow not only the pilot, but also people on the ground to know, ‘Hey, we have a problem,’” Fleming said. “There are all kinds of checks and balances for all of the mechanicals, but there’s nothing for the pilot. … We’re trying to establish baselines for performance.”

The human side

Bradke concurred. In aviation’s beginnings, he said, planes were far likelier to crash as their wings sheared off or their engines failed. Technological advances, though, made modern planes supersafe, with redundant mechanical systems, escape hatches and ejector seats. 

If planes crash now, Bradke said, it’s probably because a pilot failed, missing or misinterpreting information or forgetting a critical step, Bradke said. Perhaps they were distracted or tired.

flight sim lab 5 min
Col. Mark Ciero, who leads Norwich University’s U.S. Air Force ROTC detachment, has said the campus’s new flight simulation lab might inspire current and next-generation students, both cadets and civilians, to pursue aviation careers. (Photo by Mark Collier/Norwich University.)

“We’ve done a good job figuring out how to make airplanes better, but we have not figured out how to make humans any different,” Bradke said. 

By collecting, objective, empirical data, Bradke said he Fleming and associate psychology professor Matthew Thomas hope to help ground crews intercede earlier and prevent pilot mishaps more often. Fleming, with his background studying error prevention, can move the study from the physiological to the cognitive, Bradke said.

“(The question is) how do we take these systems that we have and these signals that we have and turn them into a meaningful indicator of cognitive performance, human performance,” he said, “and then use that in real-time to change the flying program.”

Fleming said, citing a 2017 Defense Department report, that so far cognitive predictors of flight performance have not yielded desired reductions in risk, but hoped Norwich’s new simulatiom lab might contribute to a breakthrough.

Fleming added that the U.S. Air Force has set a goal to develop risk-mitigation strategies in cognitive resources by 2030, because 21st century weapons technology “demands on combat decision-makers are outstripping the cognitive capacity of the unaided human.”

He believes you can fly

Col. Mark Ciero, who leads Norwich’s U.S. Air Force detachment, No. 867, said cadets often aspire to fly before entering ROTC or pursue “rated” career tracks, which would let them become pilots, remote piloted aircraft aviators, air battle managers or combat systems officers (Ciero is a combat systems officer who has flown 2,800 hours in the F-15E and about 500 in combat).

To encourage students to consider flying, Ciero said Norwich University revitalized its partnership with the federal Civil Air Patrol headquarters at Montpelier, Vermont’s Ed Knapp Airfield. Over two days in this past September, he said, 37 cadets, including 20 first-time fliers, flew Civil Air Patrol Cessnas at the airfield.

flight sim 7 min
Norwich University psychology professor Kevin Fleming said the new Dewey Hall flight simulation lab, now designed to mimic F-16s, will expand and adjust, adding software to mimic other jets, maybe F-35s. (Photo by Mark Collier/Norwich University.)

Beyond the Civil Air Patrol, Ciero said, Air Force ROTC funds six Norwich cadets a year for the ROTC “You Can Fly,” program, which awards several thousand dollars to help students earn personal pilot licenses and possibly develop into Air Force aviators.

“This initiative with the Psychology Department and (the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) will further our efforts to train and inspire future rated (medically qualified) cadets,” Ciero wrote in an email. “The convenience of these incredible fighter simulators will not only motivate cadets (and civilians as well) … to enter related aviation branches.”

Fleming said Norwich’s flight sim lab will expand and adjust, adding software to mimic other jets, maybe F-35s, next-generation stealth fighters now operating in at Vermont Air National Guard headquarters in Burlington, Vermont. Fleming said Dewey Hall’s recent renovation enabled Norwich’s new lab, creating the space and unlocking the technological resources to attract the grant. 

“We put ourselves in the running,” he said of Norwich. “And kept repositioning ourselves … and pushing the levers, ‘What about this, what about this?’ ‘What about this?’ That’s what happened this summer, we finally hit the right lever … we had the right partnerships, the right agency.”

Ciero, meanwhile, said the simulators will inspire current and next-generation students, both cadets and civilians, to pursue aviation careers and the lab’s research will answer critical questions as the integration of humans and machines goes further and faster.

“These programs, unique to Norwich, enable the Air Force ROTC program to encourage students’ experiences in careers that were previously underdeveloped,” he wrote. “We anticipate future Chuck Yeagers or Robin Olds will walk these great halls anxious to test their grit here first.”

* * *

COMING WEDNESDAY: Students help get flight sim lab going.


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