As the Obama Administration revealed for the first time Wednesday that military drones have killed four Americans overseas since 2009, scientists on this base near Dayton, Ohio, are studying the human body to learn whether pilots can fly a handful of drones at a time.
Researchers here also showed FOX19 high-resolution images that drones will be able to send back to their operators, making it easier to distinguish friend from foe. Many of the videos from drones that the military currently releases to the media are black-and-white and often grainy, making people appear more like shadows.
By developing a computer system that allows an operator to fly multiple drones at a time, the military reduces the amount of manpower and cash it spends on pilotless aircraft, which are central to America's strategic planning, according to Jack Blackhurst, a retired Air Force colonel who now runs the base's human research unit as a civilian.
"We've found out in our most recent conflicts that the ability to have eyes-on-target is just immeasurable in terms of the ability for the warfighter to do (his) job," Blackhurst said.
Air Force scientists and engineers developed the computer software in-house, not relying on defense contractors. They also quickly brought in airmen to test it.
"Because they're the real users of the system," said Blackhurst. "And they're going to need to tell you this works or it doesn't work. Or this is how I would utilize it."
He's very proud of his lead researcher, psychologist Mark Draper, telling FOX19 that in December Draper received one of the most prestigious awards from the Pentagon that honors scientific work. What Draper has developed, and continues to tweak, is a way to measure an airman's response to the stress of flying multiple drones at once. It's no use having computer software that is able to fly multiple drones if the human body simply can't handle the stress. By hooking-up a drone operator to a brain monitor, Draper can see what scenarios become overwhelming. His team also studies their sweat and saliva for other physiological clues.
"As you've gone along in your research, can humans handle more or less than you predicted they might?" we asked.
"I think when we first started studying it, we studied it in very simplistic simulations," Draper said. "And we thought the human could control many vehicles. Then we learned through more operational evaluations that wasn't the case. The complexities of the real world fog of war, the details that are involved, shrank that number way down."
For a relatively peaceful, routine surveillance mission, an operator can handle five or six drones at a time, the team here discovered. If a chaotic battle erupts, a drone operator can ask for help from other operators, no matter where in the world they're located.
Inside a gleaming black truck-and-tractor contraption that would be the envy of weekend campers everywhere, 1st Lt. Britany Miller puts on a headset and demonstrates how to work the system that the team here designed. In front of her, video cameras watch her eye movements for signs of fatigue and to learn which screens she and other airmen tend to use the most. On the desk is a large touch-sensitive monitor showing four drones Miller is flying in this simulation. They're represented by different colored circles. The drones are on a kind of autopilot. GPS coordinates tell them where to go. Sensors allow them to scan the terrain. Plus, these drones are smart enough to avoid running into each other. That allows operators like Miller to focus on potential "bad guys" popping-up on the array of high-resolution video monitors, which are at her eye level, off to the side.
"Like right now, if everything's going fine, all four aircraft would just be following the road," said Gregory Feitshans, the program's chief engineer. In a simulation back in their lab, Feitshans had Miller tell the drones to monitor a road in an isolated mountainous region of the world that looked a lot like Afghanistan. "The sensors are stepping along the road and her task is to pretty much watch the video at that time."
Blackhurst believes this technology is just a couple of years away from being used in real missions --- not only by the Air Force but other branches of the military. What is still far off in the future, he says, are drones capable of determining on their own when to shoot their missiles.
"It would only be done, I think, if we ever developed a system that we trusted," Blackhurst said. "So I think it's possible. But that's a matter of, we can develop it in the laboratory but it really comes down to, from a warfighter's perspective, are they prepared to accept it and implement it in that fashion?"
As for Draper, his research continues. He tells FOX19 he and his team are already looking at future military needs twenty or more years into the future. It's not hard for a U.S. drone to fly today over Iraq, Afghanistan, or Yemen. But what if the U.S. would need to send a drone into a country like Iran? And what happens when the Irans of the world develop more sophisticated unmanned aircraft of their own?
"There are efforts underway where we're actively exploring how different groups might counter our drones so that we can make our drones stronger," Draper said. "And the next generation will be stronger and more capable to operate in what we call 'denied environments' where they're a lot tougher to fly-in than where we're flying now."
Although in much of the world, America's drone program is controversial because of airstrikes that have maimed and killed civilians, here these researchers see it as a technology to be improved, not scaled back. Pres. Barack Obama will reportedly deliver his defense for the use of drones in a speech Thursday.