Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Designing a better user interface for bomb disposal

The documentary TV series "Bomb Patrol Afghanistan" shows a US Navy Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) unit working in Afghanistan. In the first episode "Rules of Engagement", the team is shown operating a remote control robot from their armoured truck. The the team leader sits in the front of the truck next to the driver, where they have a good view of the area and the progress of the robot. However, the robot operator sits in the back of the truck where they cannot see out. This causes problems for the team.

The robot operator relies on a small  display in front of one eye, which shows then a view from a camera mounted on the robot. The operator concentrates intensely, using a video game controller to direct the robot. At the same time the team leader, who can see the robot, but not what the operator is doing behind them, asks for an update "tell me what you are doing". The operator is distracted and the robot tips over into a crater. The operator is able to right the robot and drive out of the crater, but clearly the computer interface for the robot and the communication between the crew could be improved.

Normally in an armoured fighting vehicle (AFV), such as a tank, the commander sits towards the rear. The crew sit in front and beside the commander. The commander and crew in the turret share a common viewpoint. The other crew know the general direction of interest by where the turret is pointing, even if they cannot see out. In some cases the electronic sight's view is relayed to multiple crew stations.

In contrast to an AFV,  the commander in a Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected Vehicle (MRAP), normally sits at the front next to the driver. The commander has a good view of the outside and can communicate easily with the driver. But the commander can't see or easily communicate with the personnel behind them in the vehicle. This is not so important when the MRAP is used for its origial role, essentially an armoured truck to transport personnel safely to a location where they dismount to work. However, if the personnel have to operate from within the vehicle, then communication is a problem.

Ironically the viewers of the Bomb Patrol documentary had a much better view outside than the crew in the back of the truck in the documentary. The documentary makers had equipped the vehicle with numerous cameras, to shown the view outside, to show the crew and also a camera on the team leader's helmet, to show their viewpoint. This suggests a solution to the communications problem, without having to radically change the layout of the vehicle: cameras could show the crew what the team leader is looking at and show the team leader what the crew are doing.

No comments: