Editor’s note: Dr. Barry Beith is president of HumanCentric Technologies in Cary.It is especially hard in times such as these to ignore the human side of technology as it relates to soldiers and war.

At no time is it more apparent that the role of human beings in technology is a matter not of convenience or efficiency or enjoyment, but of life and death.

The field of human factors which addresses the human side of technology was born in World War II in such place as Wright-Patterson AFB in Ohio where the Army Air Corps R&D efforts were conducted and Pensacola Naval Air Station where the Navy Air Corps developed their systems. Psychologists and engineers were brought together to address issues such as g-force effects on pilots, vibration effects on bombardiers, development of safety gear, survival gear, combat equipment, communications, map reading and way-finding, vigilance research to improve the performance of radar men and shipboard watchkeepers.

War is the ultimate test of the human interaction with technology because the stakes and the stress are higher than in any other context. Dr. Everitt Rogers of the University of New Mexico was a young lieutenant assigned to the human engineering group at Wright-Patterson. His first project was to determine the cause of so many broken arms and shoulders when pilots and crews ejected from their aircraft.

Breaking arms in search for answers

I remember vividly the photo of him standing in front of the hangar with both arms in casts and slings. He didn’t feel that he could understand the problem well enough without experiencing it, so he went up, ejected, and had both arms broken. He then provided the design recommendations that kept it from happening again. His story was but one of many among those truly intrepid researchers and designers whose purpose was to design the weapons of war to work correctly and to fit better the human beings that used them.

For any with an interest, Errol Flynn and Fred McMurray (there’s a match made in Hollywood) made a movie in the 50’s called “Dive Bomber”. This film depicts the efforts of aviation psychologists in addressing the effect of g-forces on dive-bombers in WWII. It’s actually not bad, and the story was very real in that the researchers of that day were desperate to find a way to keep pilots from blacking out and crashing after a dive bomb run.

Tracing inaccuracy

Another equally fascinating discovery points out the latent dangers inherent in solving one problem only to create another unknowingly. In order to increase the accuracy of pilots in WWII, tracers were invented. These rounds would glow as they were fired and allow the pilot to track their point of aim.

Today we use lasers to accomplish the same task but with greater accuracy. The problem identified was that those units using tracers had a lower “kill” ratio and were shot down by the enemy at a significantly increased rate. Investigators and researchers looking into the problem found out that while the tracers did allow pilots to track their shots, they also had a significantly different set of ballistic characteristics. This meant that the tracers may have hit the target, but the real bullets didn’t and so the tracers were in fact misleading.

An additional problem was that in order to let the pilot know that he was out of bullets, the belts used ended with several tracers fired in a row. Of course, this also showed the enemy the same information and the results were often devastating. Once these discoveries were made, tracers were stopped and the “kill” ratio improved significantly for those units.

More complex challenges today

Today the systems are more complex and the human factors issues therefore are as well.

We can devise new technologies such as night vision apparatus, but we must be wary of creating new problems. Night vision technology provides dramatic capabilities for stealth but voids the use of color-coding as a way of differentiating elements and thus brings with it other, new considerations that must be dealt with in the designs of systems.

The controversies and difficulties associated with the Osprey aircraft demonstrate clearly the importance of testing designs for human use and technological flaws. Even the best technologies can be undermined by human limitations.

U.S. commanders in Iraq now say the biggest concern is the sleep deprivation and fatigue of the soldiers and pilots. Factors such as emotional stress, noise, sandstorms, and a myriad of other factors combine to create “the fog of war” and the design of our technologies must take them into account and, by doing so, allow soldiers and airmen to accomplish their missions and come home.

War provides a dramatic venue in which to understand, practice, and evaluate designs and the importance of the human side of those designs. We will never unfortunately have war without human beings being put in harm’s way. Designing to give them the best chance to survive is the best we can do and human factors has been an important part of that for over 50 years. While unfortunate, the human side of war makes the human side of technology even more critical.

HumanCentric: www.humancentrictech.com