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DST driving cognitive performance research

4 January 2017
Eugene Aidman in front of the DST Land Motion Platform vehicle simulator
Eugene Aidman in front of the DST Land Motion Platform vehicle simulator.

Defence Researcher Eugene Aidman leads a research team at Defence Science and Technology Group (DST) supporting the Army in their pursuit of cognitive edge in human performance.

“We study cognitive performance, in the lab and in the field, of both individuals and teams,” says Aidman.

“And more importantly, we study the cognitive fitness underpinning that.”

Aidman and his team at DST have been researching this area for years but it’s only in recent times that Army’s interests have converged on human performance gains that can be achieved by targeted application of modern neuro and behavioural sciences.

Army brought the “Cognitive Gym” concept to DST and they have placed it as a top priority.

“They are now directly asking us for advice on evidence-based approaches to improving the psychological fitness and resilience of Australian soldiers. “ Aidman explains.

The Army is Australia’s largest training organisation, and Aidman says they have a very good track record. In Army’s own words, they’ve been very good at training their people “from the neck down”.

Army leaders have now realised there is a massive potential to boost performance by exploiting the findings of cognitive and neuro-science. DST’s research program is on task, trying to unleash benefits for all Army personnel, from improving vigilance (caffeine and other operationally sustainable fatigue countermeasures to help keep eyes open after a 24 hour shift) all the way through to improving pre-frontal executive functions, impulse control, stress management and reducing distractability and decision biases.

“It’s our job to inform the design of interventions that make the lives of our soldiers and units more effective,” Aidman says.

“We do that in three application domains – selection, training and operational support. For example, in operational support, we identify those cognitive capacities that can fluctuate.

“Monitoring them in real-time is useful not only in enhancing self-awareness of the operators but also in designing operational decision aids.”

Aidman and DST colleagues Kayla Johnson, Justin Fidock and Glen Pearce in collaboration with the University of South Australia and the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research (US) have shown that monitoring eye-blink dynamics can afford substantial operational advantage under cognitive fatigue conditions such as sleep deprivation.

This technology is used in the mining industry where driver performance is beamed via 3G networks to an eye-in-the-sky monitor. No direct feedback is given to the drivers. They get a tap on the shoulder from “Big Brother” if their blinking reaches an amber zone.

“That feedback scenario is not possible in a theatre of war, so Army asked DST whether it could be used standalone, and that’s the question one of our earlier field trials was answering,” explains Aidman.

“We had Army engineers use spectacle frame-mounted infra-red blink monitors while driving service and private vehicles.

“What we were able to show is that just providing the operator with feedback on their drowsiness levels can improve performance but you need to develop protocols that the drivers can understand and use without interfering with their main tasking.

“And it’s when you make something useful out of a generally promising technology that the client gets interested.”

Monitoring glasses are now untethered, Bluetooth linked to a smartphone datalogger app; a genuinely fieldable product, and Aidman’s team are keeping a keen eye on similar emerging technologies and usage protocols.