Air Force explores trust issues among human-robot teams

The service gives SRA a contract to research into understanding “trust calibration” between operators and autonomous systems.

The military, as part of its push toward more autonomous systems, has put an emphasis on the idea of man-machine teaming, and the Air Force is now focusing on a key aspect of that idea—building trust between the two.

The service has awarded a $7.5 million contract to SRA International for research that will specifically focus on trust in autonomy, according to a Defense Department contract announcement.

Developing man-machine teaming, in which humans work cooperatively with robotic systems, is among the cornerstones of DOD’s Third Offset Strategy, announced last year as a way to keep up with fast-developing, asymmetrical tactics used by adversaries. The Navy, for example, is pursuing that strategy for both air and sea vehicles (surface and submerged) under its N99 directorate. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency also is looking to incorporate a man-machine approach to improving manufacturing, with regard to 3D printing techniques.

Humans have long relied on machines in various occupations, but the chain of command, so to speak, has always been a one-way street. As systems become more autonomous, the interplay between robotic systems and their operators becomes a more important factor. The Air Force, according to its solicitation for the project, is looking to understand the trust dynamic in human-robot systems involving pilots, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance operators and analysts, maintenance domains, and advanced human-robot teaming concepts. The research will look for ways “to harness the socio-emotional elements of interpersonal team/trust dynamics and inject them into human-robot teams,” the Air Force said.

A focus areas of the research will exploring what’s necessary for humans and machines to work together and how that applies to communication, coordination and collaboration. “The objective of this contract is to conduct research and develop technology for understanding the trust calibration process,” the solicitation said.

SRA will conduct its research primarily at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio—home of the Air Force Research Lab—with work expected to be completed by March 24, 2023.

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