Holy New Technologies! The Air Force’s BATMAN Program

Of all the superheroes, Batman is one of the coolest.

Okay sure, so his parents were killed.  Also he lives on the outskirts of a depraved, dilapidated city where he’s the hero Gotham deserves, but not the one it needs right now.  What protagonist doesn’t have their issues?

Regardless of all of that, Bruce Wayne has at his disposal the resources, technology and wherewithal to facilitate his every crime-fighting need.  And it would seem that the Air Force is looking to get in on some of that high-tech action.  In real life.

It’s called the BATMAN program, and yes, it’s exactly what it sounds like.

Photo: Air Force 2nd Lt. Shanklin tries out the Google Glass in a test for the BATMAN project at the Air Force Research Laboratory on Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, April 9, 2014. (U.S. Air Force photo by Richard Eldridge/Released)

Air Force 2nd Lt. Shanklin tries out the Google Glass in a test for the BATMAN project at the Air Force Research Laboratory on Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, April 9, 2014. (U.S. Air Force photo by Richard Eldridge/Released)

BATMAN (in this context) is an acronym, as the military does love their acronyms.  It stands for Battlefield Air Targeting Man-Aided (K)nowledge.  It’s an advanced technology research program within the 711th Human Performance Wing, developed at the Air Force Research Laboratory.

“The whole purpose of BATMAN is to try to make our airmen on the ground faster, smarter, deadlier, by looking at what they currently have and trying to make it more efficient,” explains 2nd Lt. Anthony Eastin, a behavioral scientist with the BATMAN team.  “So we work with a lot of different technologies.”

These technologies, he says, are ones that are already available, or ones they’re trying to develop.  For example, they are currently working with a lot of Android-based systems: cell phones, computers and the like.  Additionally, they’re working on improving cable wiring and optical wireless link systems.

The goal here is to see what technologies could serve as an advantage, and what can be integrated effectively, to the fighting force.

“One of the things that we try to do is to advance wearable technologies for the battlefield airman to increase their situational awareness,” says Dr. Greg Burnett, the chief engineer for the BATMAN program.

“Ultimately, this affects their survivability and lethality on the battlefield.”

They’re working in a very Lucius Fox capacity, if you will.  That is, the study and understanding of advancing technologies, and how they can be adapted for military needs.  Specifically, how they affect wartime and humanitarian mission objectives.

“We look at auditory, visual, tactile interfaces to really see how we can best portray information to the warfighter in an intuitive manner to maximize mission effectiveness,” Dr. Burnett says.

Essentially, the aptly-acronymned BATMAN program is an all-encompassing technology-capability think tank.  Dr. Burnett explains it as “looking at various emerging technologies in a multi-mobile sense”.  One of the more recently discussed technologies that they’re working with is Google Glass.

“It’s just one of the things that we’re using,” 2nd Lt. Eastin says.  “To find out how good and effective it might be.”

Effective for what, you ask?  Well, from communication needs, to medical information distribution, having a high-tech head mounted display has more than a few advantages.

“Google Glass is just one of many technologies we’re investigating for a heads-up mission portrayal system,” Dr. Burnett says.  “There are other see-through HMDs out there, but Google Glass is one of many that we have utilized and assessed human performance through its use.”

The Google Glass part of this project is to work with a very visual approach to coordinating in a combat environment.  More specifically, to make it easier for service members to transfer some of their sensory information overload onto a device.

“[Service members] have a lot of information that they’re processing constantly,” explains 2nd Lt. Eastin.  “A lot of it is done through auditory means.  So, we’re looking into Google Glass to find out if we can take some of that auditory information and make it visual.”

Photo: Comparison of Mann's Digital Eye Glass, ca. 1978-1980, with Google Glass, ca. 2013, as part of the “Retrospective Exhibition of Augmented Reality Eyewear” at the 2013 Augmented World Expo in Santa Clara, Calif., June 5, 2013. (Photo by Steve Mann/Released)

Comparison of Mann’s Digital Eye Glass, ca. 1978-1980, with Google Glass, ca. 2013, as part of the “Retrospective Exhibition of Augmented Reality Eyewear” at the 2013 Augmented World Expo in Santa Clara, Calif., June 5, 2013. (Photo by Steve Mann/Released)

This, he says, is to determine whether or not that would offload the service member cognitively, or make them faster, or make it easier for them to perform their jobs more effectively.  This is not to say that all incoming airmen are about to be fitted with their own Google Glass, though.  Right now it’s a tool used in the lab to see how the glasses, and devices like it, could benefit the warfighter.

“All these tests are in their infancy,” Eastin says, “so we don’t have any decisive results yet.  But this is just a sample of what we’re currently doing.”

The BATMAN project, according to the team, is designed to help lighten the load for service members, both in the physical sense and in the cognitive sense.  For the dismounted airmen in the field, for example – who coordinate with the pilots overhead to drop precision smart bombs onto targets of interest – having an integrated, mounted, highly capable communications device would improve the mission capability.

“We try to make sure we present information in a timely manner that allows [service members] to effectively execute their missions more effectively,” Dr. Burnett says.

They also try to look at the ergonomics and the weight distribution, essentially so they’re not causing the warfighter to become fatigued by carrying these large ensembles of technologies and capabilities into the field with them.

“We make sure that the equipment and the advanced wearable technologies that we develop actually work for the human system, and not the human working for the technology.” – Dr. Greg Burnett

According to Dr. Burnett, the BATMAN program is focused on improving two career fields.  One is the joint terminal air controllers/attack controllers.  The second is the para-rescue community, meaning the folks who are experts in personnel recovery.  That could mean anything from equipment to injured warfighters.

The BATMAN program is hoping to discover and utilize anything that can assist the military without encumbering the service members.  It’s also a project with a lot of disclosure, so you can follow the progress as the team moves forward.

“Any time that we conduct some research…we do try to publish it,” says Andres Calvo, software developer for Ohio Aerospace, also working for the BATMAN team.  “What we’re really trying to do with this research is to have information which can be presented in many different ways.”

For example, if you want to know where your teammates are located, you could place their locations on a map that was located on your smart phone.  You could also place their location on a map that you can see through a display.  Alternatively, Calvo says, you could pinpoint their location using 3-D audio.

Here’s where this gets super cool.

Air Force 2nd Lt. Shanklin, Dr. Gregory Burnett and Andres Calvo, BATMAN team members, test out Google Glass at the Air Force Research Laboratory on Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, April 9, 2014. (U.S. Air Force photo by Richard Eldridge/Released)

Air Force 2nd Lt. Shanklin, Dr. Gregory Burnett and Andres Calvo, BATMAN team members, test out Google Glass at the Air Force Research Laboratory on Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, April 9, 2014. (U.S. Air Force photo by Richard Eldridge/Released)

Essentially, 3D audio means emulating a sound and assigning it to indicate a direction by making it sound like it’s coming from that particular direction.  How cool is THAT?! You could know the sound the South makes.  Andres also says you could be able to apply this same principle, only with a tactile buzzer.

I equate this to being somewhat like the direction suggestions you get while playing video games.  For example, in the Ocrina of Time, when you get the Stone of Agony (aka the rumble pack prize from the House of Skulltula), it would rumble when you passed hidden holes in the ground.  This is like that, only with real directional awareness in real-life scenarios.

I love when video game knowledge is applicable IRL.

“By analyzing all these different ways of portraying information, we’re trying to assess the pros and cons of each one,” Calvo explains.  “In doing so, we want to make sure we can give information by minimizing distraction time and by maximizing one’s awareness of the environment.”

This is all about assessing the human interface factors that go into all of these displays, Dr. Burnett tells me.  The BATMAN team is assessing the human/machine interface, and what that means for performance.

They’re also working with other industries, branches of government and academia on their mission to explore and understand emerging, integrating technologies for the warfighter.

“There’s a lot of potential out there,” says 2nd Lt. Eastin.  “Our goal is to try and make sure our soldiers are safe out there.  We do so by testing all this gear for them.”

The military is getting cooler and cooler stuff these days, moving ever-closer to a the reality of a technologically advanced, science-based force.  After all, you know what they say: you should always be who you are…unless you can be Batman.

Then always be Batman.

Jessica L. Tozer is a blogger for DoDLive and Armed with Science.  She is an Army veteran and an avid science fiction fan, both of which contribute to her enthusiasm for science and technology in the military.

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One Response to Holy New Technologies! The Air Force’s BATMAN Program

  1. josephkern says:

    Hmmm… Why am I only seeing right-eye dominant google glasses? It would seem to me that the sight-picture on the rifle would be the most important (and the least flexible UX design consideration) feature of any heads up display given to combatants.

    That being said, I like the kernel of thought presented here. I would like to see these technical force multipliers tested in logistics and maintenance. Imagine a maintainer being able to pull up a manual while working, or a loggy able to “see” the RFID tags in a warehouse.