PRESS INFORMATION - 3rd March 2005

Knowledge-Based Decision Support for Military Fast-Jet Pilots

Advances in military aircraft and missile technologies mean that aircrew must assimilate large amounts of data and perform complex tasks, often under extreme conditions. To reduce this load on pilots and ensure that they are able to perform at their optimum, the UK Ministry of Defence, in conjunction with QinetiQ and Epistemics, established a program of applied research into the development of cockpit automation and decision aiding for military fast-jet pilots. Nick Milton of Epistemics explains how such intelligent knowledge-based aiding systems can reduce the task and cognitive load on aircrew enabling the pilot to concentrate on critical tasks.

In today’s complex military environments it is imperative that all missions are carried out with the utmost effectiveness in order to minimise collateral damage and loss of own forces. In the context of air attack missions, advances in technology mean that aircrew can be overloaded with data and tasks so that they cannot perform to an optimal level throughout a mission. One method of reducing this cognitive load on aircrew is the provision of intelligent knowledge-based aiding systems enabling the pilot to concentrate on critical tasks. These systems require context sensitivity in order to provide the right information, in the right way, at the right time, and to perform vital tasks if the pilot is overloaded.

To address this issue, the UK Ministry of Defence in conjunction with QinetiQ and Epistemics established a program of applied research concerned with the development of cockpit automation and decision aiding for military fast-jet pilots. The project was to provide a demonstration of options and benefits for future envisioned air systems such as Future Offensive Air System (FOAS), Future Carrier-Borne Aircraft (FCBA), and Eurofighter Upgrade.

QinetiQ is the privatised division of the former Defence Evaluation and Research Agency (DERA). It is a science and technology powerhouse driven by Europe's largest community of scientists, engineers and technicians. Based on success in a number of previous projects, they selected Epistemics to perform knowledge acquisition and implementation of a knowledge-based decision support system.

Acquiring knowledge from the pilots

To develop a knowledge-based aiding system, one must first understand how pilots deal with different situations and threats. This is not as simple as just asking them, since experienced pilots will react instinctively in difficult situations and are often unable to recall afterwards what actions were taken and why. Epistemics use a range of special acquisition techniques and a software toolkit, PCPACK, to enable experts to describe and reveal their instinctive understanding and thought processes. Epistemics captured and validated knowledge from a number of RAF and Royal Navy pilots. This involved observing pilots in a flight simulator, interviewing pilots using a number of psychological techniques and modelling the knowledge with PCPACK. CommonKADS task templates were used to improve efficiency and ensure that all relevant knowledge was captured. Areas covered included target attack, mission re-planning, and use of a defensive aids suite.

The structured approach provided by the special acquisition techniques in PCPACK and the CommonKADS task templates ensured that knowledge from multiple experts was captured quickly, minimising the amount of time spent with those experts and maximising the quality of the resulting knowledge. The task decompositions and associated knowledge that was captured provided the basis for future architectural and software-design processes. Dr Blair Dickson, Centre for Human Sciences, QinetiQ commented that by using CommonKADS and PCPACK: “The traditional knowledge acquisition bottleneck was significantly reduced by the provision of a structured methodology and tool set”.

Embedding knowledge into flight systems

Taking the defensive aids suite as an example, a problem solving model was developed based on a constraint solver. This model takes in data about the current mission environment and uses its knowledge of threats and anomalies to produce a plan of corrective actions. The knowledge captured from the pilots was used create a set of rules that determine what actions should be taken to combat a particular threat, such as a surface-to-air missile. Some of these rules act as constraints to determine whether the desired action can or cannot be carried out and the time required for each action to complete. Some constraints must be solved for a plan to be valid, for example if a towed radar decoy is to be deployed the aircraft height must be greater than 100 metres. This might be resolved by adding an action to climb to the minimum height. Other constraints are optional, for example it may be preferable to commence a jamming action before extruding chaff. As each constraint is resolved, both the environment and any new threats are re-assessed, leading to a dynamic plan that evolves in real time.

Using the acquired knowledge, Epistemics implemented a Situation Assessment Support System (SASS) which monitors the status of the aircraft situation and the outside environment and develops a plan to deal with any threats. The recommended actions from the plan are delivered to the pilot through their instrumentation, both graphically and via voice commands, in a timely manner, one instruction at a time. The pilot’s cognitive workload is constantly monitored using measures such as eye tracking, pulse and skin resistance. As the pilot becomes overloaded the system takes over, thereby performing the necessary defensive tasks automatically.

SASS was incorporated into a Cognitive Cockpit flight simulator which has been successfully demonstrated to senior military personnel from around the world. In tests, pilots found the system to be a significant aide making the crew station easier to use and taking a significant step towards cockpit automation and decision aiding for military fast-jet pilots. The system has now been taken up in the USA by DARPA as part of their Augmented Cognition programme.

It is expected that knowledge-based aiding systems will soon be helping pilots deal with threats and take corrective actions during those most severe of situations.

For information on how Epistemics can help your organisation, please contact Steve Swallow:

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Last modified: 15 March 2005