The cockpit of a fighter jet can be a mysterious place.
The Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps have all had to investigate rashes of “unexplained physiological episodes” in recent years, as pilots in certain aircraft were experiencing strange symptoms ranging from dizziness to tingling fingers and labored breathing.
A new DARPA initiative now seeks to understand the full physical impact of the cockpit environment on pilots – from radio frequency to electromagnetic feedback – and help the military better prepare its aviators for what they’ll experience.
Called the Impact of Cockpit Electro-Magnetics on Aircrew Neurology (ICEMAN) Project, the effort was launched in 2020 with a formal request for research proposals on the topic. A six-month first phase that started last year enabled three selected partners to fine-tune their plans for monitoring the cockpit environment. But with Phase Two, which began in May, the effort is really getting underway.
To answer your first question: Yes, the ICEMAN name is a very self-aware reference to Val Kilmer’s cocky fighter jock in Top Gun. Air Force Col. Dan “Animal” Javorsek, then the program manager for DARPA’s Air Combat Evolution Program, brought the project into existence and came up with its memorable name.
“Yes, it very much was giving the nod to Top Gun there,” Anna Skinner, a technical adviser to the ICEMAN Project, told Sandboxx News in an interview.
The impetus for the effort, she said, was a 2020 report from the National Commission on Military Aviation Safety studying 198 military aviation deaths over a five-year span. While the survey did highlight certain known problems, such as inadequate training and pilot fatigue and burnout, it also pointed to unknowns, saying more research was needed on what the human body experienced in flight and the factors that could degrade pilot awareness or physical well-being.
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Spatial disorientation among US Air Force pilots has been linked to numerous accidents
The new project also builds on an earlier DARPA program called RadioBio, Skinner said.
Research from that program, she said, showed that “there’s a human brain response in response to magnetic fields, and also, that response changes when there’s also [radio frequencies] present.” As Microwave News reported in 2020, the stakes are not low when it comes to forces affecting pilots in the air.
“Spatial disorientation among U.S. Air Force pilots has been linked to 72 severe accidents between 1993 and 2013, resulting in 101 deaths and the loss of 65 aircraft,” the publication reported.
For Javorsek, a logical next step was to install sensors in cockpits.
“Current cockpits are flooded with radio frequency (RF) noise from on-board emissions, communication links, and navigation electronics, including strong electromagnetic (EM) fields from audio headsets and helmet tracking technologies,” DARPA’s initial request for proposals reads.
“Pilots sometimes say you lose 10 IQ points as soon as you get in the cockpit,” Skinner said, though she added this anecdotal effect could also be due to stress or adrenaline.
Related: More than missing guns: Why America lost dogfights over Vietnam
Project ICEMAN will benefit from diverse technological approaches
The three organizations DARPA selected to study cockpit mysteries have unique approaches to the problem.
Spotlight Labs, which was founded by former military aviators in 2016, is the inventor of SPYDR, a helmet-mounted hypoxia sensor that has already been used in eight different Air Force and Navy aircraft platforms to assess and prevent physiological episodes. That company, Skinner said, plans to refine its existing technology to meet the DARPA brief.
Applied Physics Systems, the second partner, makes machine sensors, including magnetometers and accelerometers, “used in energy, defense, industrial, and scientific applications,” according to its website. It’s teaming up with the California Institute of Technology and the University of Iowa for Project Iceman.
The final partner, Triple Ring Technologies, develops diagnostic tools, with a focus on the health and medical field. It’s working with the Florida Institute for Human and Machine Cognition.
Related: 5 pieces of US military technology that came from Britain
“So we’ve got some diversity there, in terms of what each of the businesses focuses on,” Skinner said.
Two of the three contract performers are developing a pair of sensors, she said: one antenna-like device that would monitor electromagnetic radiation in the cockpit; and a pilot-worn device that would record physical symptoms and responses. The third, she said, is developing a single sensor intended to monitor everything at once.
One approach, which would use a sensor fitted at the carotid artery on the pilot’s neck, would track blood flow to the brain as a potential way to trigger an early warning of an anomaly that could signal an upcoming physiological episode.
Each of the companies or teams will test their sensors independently with human subjects in simulation chambers. A next step may involve flights in declassified fighter aircraft, providing the most realistic test environment short of involving active-duty military squadrons.
“We’ve kind of put a target on beginning flight testing within five months from now,” Skinner said.
From there, the hope is to build relationships with active-duty units and send the technology up with real fighter jets. Project ICEMAN is slated to run for three years, and program managers plan to compile reports with their findings at the end of it.
“We could have [the project partners] do a final demonstration,” Skinner said, “And if they’ve got technology that we want to transition to the military, we’d have them go out to an Air Force base and do a demonstration.”
A potential Phase Three could also see the development of more mature sensors for widespread or commercial use. At minimum, Project ICEMAN is likely to draw more, much-needed attention to the invisible factors affecting the health, responsiveness, and cognition of the military’s high-performing combat aviators.
“These helmet-mounted cueing systems are about as close as you can get to your brain, your cognitive function,” Javorsek told Forbes earlier this year. “We know from [RadioBio] that there is a relationship between your brain waves and disturbances in the electromagnetic ambient environment.”
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