ARL-led studies underway to improve IED visual detection

June 21, 2012

Story Highlights

  • ARL Fort Leonard Wood, MO, investigation visual perception.
  • ARL HRED teaching Soldiers different methods of how to look at objects.
  • Research trying to understand how humans detect information.

Despite its investment in millions of dollars worth of sophisticated technology, U.S. Army's researchers say visual detection is the primary means of discovering Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs), so they're investigating the unthinkable: making perfect sight a standard Army issue.

U.S. Army Research Laboratory (ARL) studies currently underway at its field element office in Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., won't fully realize this goal researchers say, but they're expected to come close by investigating potential benefits of applying visual perception skills, like trackers, to help Soldiers better visually detect IEDs.

In 2010, there were more IED deaths than the first eight years of the war combined. According to iCasualties, there were 275 such fatalities in 2009, 368 in 2010 and 252 in 2011.

According to USA Today, there were 16,554 reports of cleared or detonated IEDs in Afghanistan — a record high — up from 15,225 in 2010 and 9,304 in 2009.

"The potential to better understand how the human detects and enhanced training program to increase detection rates can be a significant tactical advantage," said Dr. Alan D. Davison, chief of Human Research and Engineering Directorate's (HREDs) Maneuver and Mobility Branch. "For the warfighter, the capability to visually detect IEDs prior to detonation can be a tremendous life saver."

If researchers can first understand why some Soldiers have stronger visual perception skills that help them discriminate between similar objects or pick out details without getting confused by background images like in the game 'Hidden Picture,' they can combine customized training with sophisticated mine technology to improve visual detection of surface and buried weapons.

When it gets down to it, Davison said research he and colleague Kristin Schweitzer, from HRED's Fort Huachuca Field Element are leading really focus on what "is perceived in the brain differently" and he can help guide that by teaching different methods of how to look at objects and information, and developing enchanced capabilities to perceive then interpret what previously could have been seen but not likely noticed.

Davison said researchers from ARL and the Army Research Institute will soon complete some visual detection training products as part of the work of the ARL/ARI Visual Detection Research Team.

"We look at it as improving not so much the eyes - we can't do much to change them - as to improve the ability to perceive indicators of IEDs," he said.

Training along these lines would fill gaps from technology developed without the benefit of human factors integration. The military has found that some of the most fascinating technological capabilities – from a purely scientific perspective – are burdensome to Soldiers because they require too much thinking to figure out, too heavy to carry or too cumbersome to manipulate, said Davison, a Williamsburg, Kan. native, who received his doctoral degree in Industrial Engineering, University of Wisconsin – Madison.

He said trackers enhance perceptual skills to detect and recognize indicators that others are not aware of, and they are able to do this through the development of a variety of techniques of knowing what to look for and where, how to employ shadows to better define information and how to interpret the details of what can be seen.

Davison's office is responsible for setting up and establishing standard IED lanes for testing of other elements of the research project and improving the standard lanes currently being used by the Army. He transitioned to that position after serving as the Engineer Materiel Acquisition Officer at Ft. Leonard Wood. He retired from active duty in 1997 as an Army Lieutenant Colonel.

The ARL field office's interest in visual IED detection evolved from previous research pertaining to handheld mine detection.

"After building numerous training sites where mine simulants were buried with efforts to eliminate all visual cues, we would go back to the same training lanes one and more years later and there would be subtle visual cues of where the stimulants were buried. Observation of Soldiers using detectors in the lanes often showed Soldiers failing to see visual cues even when spending a great deal of time investigating the target area with the detector. These observations resulted in an interest in learning how trackers better interpret visual indicators.

"We believe that some of our work has helped to develop training to help Soldiers in visual IED detection and also has increased the Army's interest in developing the skills of trackers to teach to Soldiers to improve visual IED detection. This office's work, in collaboration with other elements of HRED and the Army Research Institute, has improved training for visual detection of IEDs."


Last Update / Reviewed: June 21, 2012