NORTHFIELD, Vt. — Norwich University, in partnership with Spotlight Labs, has been awarded a three-year $371,000 Small Business Innovation Research grant from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to continue work on the Impact of Cockpit Electro-Magnetics on Aircrew Neurology (ICEMAN) project.

This grant will fund research on Phase II of the ICEMAN project after Norwich and Spotlight complete Phase I.

The project’s first phase, also funded by DARPA, resulted in Spotlight establishing a research flight simulation lab at Norwich University. The lab consists of five computer workstations that mimic flying F-16 fighter jets, with components to gather data to gauge pilots’ alertness, dexterity and performance. The lab uses software-embedded trackers and wearable technology to watch biometrics, including eye blinks and reaction times, to gauge pilot health and fatigue and determine whether electromagnetic and radio frequency (EM/RF) affects pilot physiology during virtual missions.

“Current combat aircraft cockpits are flooded with radio frequency (RF) noise from onboard emissions, communication links, and navigation electronics, including strong electromagnetic (EM) fields from audio headsets and helmet tracking technologies.” Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency

The three-year grant is $1.5 million; Norwich's share is $371,000. This money will support psychology professors Dr. Kevin Fleming and Dr. Matthew Thomas. Student research stipends will also be provided. Additional funds will further develop the lab’s capabilities, allowing students to fly team missions and monitor the coordination of their efforts. Researchers will also be testing the SPYDR headsets — a helmet-mounted hypoxia sensor that gathers human biometric data for measuring in-flight oxygen, heart-rate variability and other physiological variables.

“The flight simulation lab has already provided students with a fantastic opportunity to hone their flying skills while learning about avionics and human factors research,” Fleming said. “We look forward to making this a permanent facility in the Psychology Department for our students most interested in becoming pilots.”

DARPA said cockpit conditions necessitated this research.

“Current combat aircraft cockpits are flooded with radio frequency (RF) noise from onboard emissions, communication links, and navigation electronics, including strong electromagnetic (EM) fields from audio headsets and helmet tracking technologies.”
Military pilots have reported cognitive performance issues during flights. It is thought that the radio frequency and electromagnetic fields in the aircraft’s cockpit might affect cognitive performance, perhaps causing task saturation, misprioritization, complacency and spatial disorientation.
The ICEMAN project aims to see whether the combat cockpit’s electromagnetic environment influences pilots’ cognitive and/or physiological sensor performance and provide feasible mitigation techniques. DARPA also reports that electromagnetic fields and radio waves in cockpits are not currently monitored. Little effort has been made to shield pilots from these fields and the potential impacts on cognition have not been assessed.

Examining cognitive effects

Dr. Brian Bradke, a former U.S. Air Force pilot and Norwich University professor, is chief operating officer and executive vice president of Spotlight Labs, an armed forces-veteran-owned human-performance analytics and sensor company. 

flight sim lab fleming min
Dr. Kevin Fleming, right, works with a student in in January Norwich University’s flight simulation lab in Dewey Hall. (Photo by Mark Collier/Norwich University.)

“Spotlight Labs is incredibly excited to be partnered with Norwich University and NUARI for this exciting work,” Bradke said. “As a fighter pilot, I’ve often found myself wondering how electromagnetic radiation or other environmental hazards might impact pilots, passengers and aircrew. The airborne environment is very unique, and it’s important that we fully characterize the physiological and cognitive effects it’s having on the human system. Only then can we implement strategies and invent new technologies to mitigate these effects, leading to healthier aircrew who are more efficient and effective in accomplishing their missions.

“The recognized psychological experts in Norwich’s psychology department, led by Dr. Kevin Fleming, are a welcome addition to Spotlight’s team of engineers, physiologists and data scientists. I really expect to see some amazing developments as the project unfolds over the next two years.”

Spotlight Labs has headquarters in Haddonfield, New Jersey, and an engineering and flight test hub in Berlin, Vermont.
The ICEMAN project will:

  1. Measure and manipulate the ambient electromagnetic field and radio frequency noise in a typical cockpit.
  2. Measure the potential effects of these electromagnetic stimuli on brain activity, physiology, behavioral responses and physiological sensing systems.
  3. Demonstrate potential strategies to mitigate adverse effects on aircrew neurology and sensor function.

The project’s second phase will focus on developing a next-generation sensor suite capable of measuring ambient electromagnetic/radio frequency conditions in a military aircraft cockpit. Phase II experimentation goals will aim to identify any effects of the cockpit electromagnetic/radio frequency conditions that negatively affect pilot cognitive function or physiological sensor function and develop and test various mitigation strategies to protect against these effects.

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