The Soldier's Network - Shaping Systems To The Soldier

The way we train Soldiers to use equipment today derives from philosophies established when the Army needed to train millions of Soldiers on relatively simple pieces of gear. In addition, the Army needed to accomplish that training quickly, and to do that, we adapted the Soldier to the kit. This approach is standard in a way that neither Soldiers nor missions really are. As systems have grown more complex, training has as well.

The U.S. Army Research, Development and Engineering Command (RDECOM) is assessing training from a new perspective in the age of mass customization, 3-D printing and wearable computers, and we realize we must change our standardized approach, a vestige of the industrial age.

To meet Army Chief of Staff GEN Raymond T. Odierno’s vision of “the most highly trained and professional land force in the world” will require a new paradigm for how we develop and field equipment. It will take across-the-board, revolutionary change to reach the future he describes.



Part of RDECOM’s mission is to provide engineering services to program managers (PMs) seeking to modify fielded equipment. Soldiers have a long history of adapting equipment to better suit their own needs as well as those of their mission. RDECOM’s Field Assistance in Science and Technology advisers get firsthand feedback from the Soldiers on the modifications they have made to their equipment, as well as insight gained supporting units during exercises and on the battlefield. The engineering modifications happen officially at some cost to the program, and Soldiers’ adaptations happen unofficially at some cost in battlefield risk. Neither is as efficient or ultimately as effective as we need it to be.

Training represents a cost that may not be as obvious as the costs of modifying a program. Training adapts Soldiers to their equipment. The process of doing that with hundreds of thousands of Soldiers requires a large training base—an expensive combination of facilities, people, time and money—and these resources will become more scarce if current budget predictions hold. Soldiers begin their careers in the training base and revisit it throughout their careers.

Training continues at the unit level as NCOs help junior Soldiers understand mission realities beyond the scope of expensive, standardized training. The Army is taking advantage of technological advances to address these training costs. It is exploring the use of virtual environments, augmented-reality tools and gaming in lieu of conducting wide-scale realistic training events.

RDECOM has developed a number of technologies to support this approach. Some are evolutionary, while others are revolutionary for a particular population or training scenario.

One such technology is the addition of 3-D vision and haptic feedback—using the sense of touch, as the controller in a race car video game does by buzzing or shaking when the player’s car hits a wall or another car—to the robotic arm technology that Soldiers use to detect and neutralize explosive hazards in Afghanistan. RDECOM researchers and industry partners conducted an experiment at Fort Leonard Wood, MO, in which Soldiers training there showed a significant improvement in speed, accuracy and operator confidence when using the 3-D interface and force-feedback haptic response system versus the 2-D vision and “factory” robotic arms.

Using the haptic response system, the Soldier feels it through the controller when the virtual Army unit hits an improvised explosive device (IED). Instead of training the Soldier to adapt to the equipment, we need to build equipment that can adapt to Soldiers and the conditions in which they find themselves. We need systems designed from the ground up with input and feedback from our Soldiers—the Soldiers who will use these systems on the battlefields of tomorrow, and whose lives will depend on being able to operate them. Smart engineering and collaboration throughout the materiel development cycle can enable us to create such equipment and the best training systems to support it.



Human systems integration and human factors engineering (HFE) hold the potential for these revolutionary gains. MANPRINT, for example, is the Army’s implementation of human systems integration, under RDECOM’s leadership. Its stated mission is to optimize total system performance, reduce life-cycle costs and minimize the risk of Soldier loss or injury by considering the impact of materiel design on Soldiers throughout system development. It does this by focusing on seven domains: manpower, personnel, training, HFE, system safety, health hazards and Soldier survivability.

The Human Research and Engineering Directorate of the U.S. Army Research Laboratory (ARL) is the Army’s lead agency for HFE. It has identified several key elements in the equipment design process that could help Army PMs build systems that adapt to Soldiers:

• Early support to analysis-of-alternatives study teams to ensure that they consider Soldier performance and make accommodations for the Soldier in the trade space when developers must decide which aspects of the design to trade for others—for example, trading usability features for such factors as weight, power draw or range.

• Early support to those designing and building equipment for the Army, support to conduct usability studies and access to Soldiers to obtain design input and feedback.

• Early specification of human performance and human-system interaction requirements and metrics so that vendors can meet them using Soldier-centered, iterative design.

• Equipment design that conforms to consistent user interface standards, and when inconsistent operation is required to ensure the survivability of friendly forces.

• Early support from Army human factors engineers who understand the entire suite of Soldier systems. Among the systems to which the Army has successfully applied these HFE principles are the Joint Tactical Radio System (JTRS) Manpack radio, the JTRS Rifleman radio, the Enhanced Medium Altitude Reconnaissance and Surveillance System, display designs for aircraft hovercontrol in degraded visual environments, the Joint Multi-Role Medium Class Aircraft and the Mobile Tower System.

For example, the Rifleman Radio usability studies, undertaken with the 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Armored Division at Fort Bliss, TX, sought to understand how well the radio supports tactical operations through its user interface, specifically audio alerts, fit and physical design characteristics, among other factors. Infantry Soldiers conducted training drills including squad and platoon patrols, reacting to snipers and IEDs, and entering and clearing buildings. They used the radio under varying conditions: day and night; in urban, open, and mountainous terrain; while mobile and while stationary. Soldier feedback included “too easy” and “you could have handed it to us and we could have figured out how to use it without anybody saying anything.”

Soldier evaluations such as these show that further integrating the effective use of these HFE principles will revolutionize training. No longer will we think about teaching a system to a Soldier; instead, we will need to “teach the system” about the Soldier and train the two to work together as a team. Consistent interfaces mean that Soldiers will have a common operating picture that is portable between pieces of equipment, so that when they move to a new piece of equipment, they only need to spend a few hours familiarizing themselves with the buttonology of that new equipment. They can then spend more hands-on time learning how to use the equipment during tactical operations.

Even more exciting are the design possibilities our researchers are now beginning to visualize that blur the line between helping Soldiers in the field and moving training into the field with them. We may be able to design systems that adapt to their users and help them maximize performance no matter the conditions. For example, a system could infer the Soldier’s cognitive state—whether the Soldier in the fight is overwhelmed with visual or auditory stimuli, battlefield stress or injury. It might recognize whether the Soldier has forgotten how to use the system effectively. The system could determine if it could provide training on the battlefield that could help the Soldier survive. If the user’s learning curve is too steep, the system could infer that the Soldier is misinterpreting data or incorrectly managing the system, and provide corrective measures.



The goal is to improve Soldiers’ effectiveness and protection, so that when their lives and the lives of friendly forces depend on their making the correct decisions, whether from a drop-down menu, selecting the correct control to override or interrupting an automatic firing sequence, the right choice would be within the cognitive ability of the Soldier at that time. Smart development and teamwork make it possible for us to reach this goal and, at the same time, possibly shrink the training base to give the Army a more favorable tooth-to-tail ratio as it retools itself for the future.


MR . DALE A. ORMOND, director of RDECOM since February 2012, holds an M.S. in environmental systems engineering from Clemson University and is a 1985 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy. He is Level III certified in acquisition program management. He was selected for the Senior Executive Service in July 2004.

Source: Dale Ormond, “Shaping Systems To The Soldier,” Army AL&T Magazine, 7/16/2014