Military pilots often report cognitive performance challenges during flight operations. Many have reported experiences with spatial disorientation (SD), in which the pilot’s perception of aircraft position, motion, altitude, or attitude does not correspond to reality. SD has posed a significant problem to military pilots and continues to be a challenge today.
Spatial disorientation among U.S. Air Force pilots has been linked to 72 severe accidents between 1993 and 2013, resulting in 101 deaths and the loss of 65 aircraft. These reports indicate that SD mishaps occur in fighter/attack aircraft at more than five times the rate of nonfighter/attack fixed-wing aircraft. Indeed, the rate of SD-related accidents is estimated to be 11–12% of military aircraft crashes.
The number of SD accidents at night is higher than at daytime. Visual illusions at night because of the degraded visual environment are well documented. During night flights, pilots sometimes confuse ground lights with stars and unlighted areas of the Earth as night sky.
SD may be caused by several human factors, such as the visual, vestibular, and somatosensory systems involved in cognitive performance. Aside from the potential effects on cognitive functions and human brainwaves already mentioned in the DARPA announcement, there may be potential responses of a more abrupt and distractive nature resulting from exposure to high-power pulsed RF and microwave radiation. It is thought that the radio frequency and electromagnetic fields in the aircraft’s cockpit might affect cognitive performance, perhaps causing task saturation, mis-prioritization, complacency and spatial disorientation.
It is reasonable to assume that fighter cockpits are subjected to strong impinging RF and/or microwave radar pulses under some operational conditions. Common characteristics of these radar pulses are high peak power (gigawatts), short pulsewidth (microseconds), and fast pulse rise time (nanoseconds). Depending on the specific materials and designs of the helmets, RF and microwave radiation could penetrate and reverberate inside a pilot’s helmet and head to generate
even higher RF and EM fields within the head under these circumstances.
In August 2020, the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) issued an invitation for the submission of innovative research proposals related to its Impact of Cockpit Electro-Magnetics on Aircrew Neurology (ICEMAN) project that could lead to a better understanding of this phenomenon. ICEMAN is short for Impact of Cockpit Electro-Magnetics on Aircrew Neurology.
In its request for proposal (RFP), DARPA stated that, “Current cockpits are flooded with radio frequency (RF) noise from on-board emissions, communication links, and navigation
electronics, including strong electromagnetic (EM) fields from audio headsets and helmet tracking technologies.” The agency notes that current tactical audio headsets project magnetic fields that are up to 10 times the strength of the Earth’s magnetic field —that is, approximately 5 G (0.5 mT).
“Recent DARPA-funded research has demonstrated that human brains sense magnetic fields, like those used by animals for navigation, and that this process is ‘jammed’ (i.e., disrupted) by radio waves (RF), impacting brainwaves and behavior. Furthermore, recent findings were the first to show that even weak RF fields and ‘Earth strength’ magnetic fields have measurable, reproducible effects on human brainwaves and unconscious behavior in a controlled environment.”
The “recent research” refers to work carried out under DARPA’s RadioBio program, announced in 2017. One of its objectives was to see whether living cells can communicate with neighboring cells using EM signals and, if so, what the cells are telling each other and how they do it.
There is also the threat of Directed-energy microwave weapons that convert energy from a power source – a wall plug in a lab or the engine on a military vehicle – into radiated electromagnetic energy and focus it on a target. The directed high-power microwaves damage equipment, particularly electronics, without killing nearby people. Today, research in high-power microwaves continues in the U.S. and Russia but has exploded in China. Dozens of countries now have active high-power microwave research programs.
Impact of Cockpit Electro-Magnetics on Aircrew Neurology (ICEMAN) program
The stated objectives are to determine whether the current air combat cockpit EM environment may impact cognitive performance and/or physiological sensor performance as well as to quantify the effects and demonstrate potential mitigation strategies.
According to DARPA, the objectives of the ICEMAN project are:
1) Measure and manipulate the ambient EM field and RF noise in a typical cockpit;
2) Measure potential effects of EM stimuli on brain activity, physiology, behavioral responses and physiological sensing systems;
3) Demonstrate potential strategies to mitigate negative effects on aircrew neurology and sensory function.
DARPA is seeking a contractor to measure the electromagnetic fields inside cockpits, especially signals between 9 kHz and 1 GHz and then determine whether they might affect the performance of pilots.
Norwich receives DARPA grant to study effect of cockpit noise on pilots in May 2022
Vermont Business Magazine Norwich University, in partnership with Spotlight Labs, has been awarded a three-year $371,000 Small Business Innovation Research grant from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to continue work on the Impact of Cockpit Electro-Magnetics on Aircrew Neurology (ICEMAN) project.
This grant will fund research on Phase II of the ICEMAN project after Norwich and Spotlight completed Phase I of the study.
Phase I of the project, also funded by DARPA, resulted in Spotlight establishing a research flight simulation lab at Norwich University. The lab(link is external) consists of five computer workstations that mimic flying F-16 fighter jets, with components to gather data to gauge pilots’ alertness, dexterity and performance. The lab uses software-embedded trackers and wearable technology to watch biometrics, including eye blinks and reaction times, to gauge pilot health and fatigue and determine whether electromagnetic and radio frequency (EM/RF) affects pilot physiology during virtual missions.
During the project’s second phase, work will be directed at developing a next-generation sensor suite capable of measuring the ambient electromagnetic/radio frequency conditions in a military aircraft cockpit environment. Phase II experimentation goals will aim to identify any impacts of the cockpit electromagnetic/radio frequency conditions that negatively affect pilot cognitive function or physiological sensor function and develop and test various mitigation strategies to protect against these effects.
The three-year grant is $1.5 million, of which Norwich’s share is $371,000. These funds will support Psychology Professors Kevin Fleming and Matthew Thomas. Student research stipends will also be provided. Additional funds will further develop the capabilities of the lab allowing students to fly team missions and monitor the coordination of their efforts. Researchers will also be testing the SPYDR headsets – a helmet-mounted hypoxia sensor that gathers human biometric data – for measuring in-flight oxygen and heartrate variability, among other physiological variables.