A battlefield app to help troops call in airstrikes

Laura Major, group leader of human-system collaboration at Draper Laboratory demonstrates the battlefield app.
Laura Major, group leader of human-system collaboration at Draper Laboratory demonstrates the battlefield app.
courtesy of Draper Laboratory

Everyone has wrestled with technology that turns out to be more trouble than it’s worth. That piece of software or device that requires arcane commands, too many clicks, or an encyclopedic memory of menu options and keyboard shortcuts. For most of us, it’s a hassle we put up with or an impetus to buy a different gadget.

On the battlefield, technology that’s not intuitive to use can be much more than a nuisance, meaning troops just don’t use devices that could keep them safer. A technology may be incredibly sophisticated, but if using it is onerous in a stressful and constantly evolving situation, it may be useless.

Three years ago, the Air Force realized it was dealing with a user-unfriendly technology, borne out of good intentions. A new computer system, a laptop hitched to a person’s chest, had been introduced to aid operators calling in air support for ground troops.

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The system was supposed to increase the accuracy and reliability of communication with pilots and reduce the possibility of mistakes: No longer would operators need to depend solely on radios and read out strings of letters and numbers to describe the GPS coordinates of a target. They wouldn’t just be depending on their description of the surrounding scenery and landmarks to guide an air strike. But troops were often leaving behind the computer when on the battlefield, despite the fact that it was powerful, reliable, and could increase safety.

Laura Major uses one of the military’s current devices.
courtesy of Draper Laboratory

Laura Major, group leader of human-system collaboration at Draper Laboratory, began studying why operators weren’t using the computer and found that their reluctance stemmed from a situation familiar to most people who have dealt with clumsy technology.

“What we found is it was really designed more for a computer scientist or engineer,” Major said. “There were 60 different software applications and it required a lot of memorization.”

The researchers turned for inspiration to an interface millions of people were already using with ease to navigate their surroundings and communicate with others—smartphones. They designed a battlefield app that would allow troops to use maps and touch screens to identify targets and send them to pilots. The app would also allow other computations that might have previously required multiple steps, such as measuring the distance between two spots and estimating where collateral damage was likely to take place.

To minimize “head down” time when operators were staring at the screen trying to find the option they wanted, the researchers designed a wheel-shaped menu, with functions distributed around the wheel. This made finding the right option easier, in the same way that people intuitively remember where the numbers are on a telephone keypad.

Major said that the system is a prototype and being tested in the field, but that the feedback so far has been positive. Military personnel who have seen the app demonstrated have asked if they can take it back right now.

Major’s broader aim is to find ways to make technologies more user-friendly.

In the consumer world, user-friendliness usually emerges as a natural result of competition. If a product is difficult to figure out, a competitor offering a product that can accomplish the same task more simply will sell more products. The incentives and competition to make software and gadgets that people want to use can be fierce.

In areas such as defense and aerospace, the traditional emphasis has been on reliablity and functionality, but making systems that humans can effectively use can be important, too.

Major, who heads a group that includes human factors engineers and psychologists, hopes to integrate that thinking more deeply into the technology used at the frontiers of exploration or in war.