Tactical

DARPA program seeks ways to measure effective team performance

A new program by the defense agency that helped develop stealth technology and GPS aims to measure and predict how human teams perform together and improve training with scientific tools.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency recently announced a 2.5-year program that seeks to give military instructors data-driven capabilities for real-time assessment, after-action reviews and performance diagnostics for human team proficiency and readiness.

The program, dubbed Objective Prediction of Team Effectiveness via Models of Performance Outcomes, or OPTEMPO, is soliciting industry pitches on what bio-behavioral metrics, such as heart rate variability, and communication between teammates correlate to team performance.

If successful, researchers expect the program to apply across various teams, from tactical squads to squadron-level air crews, medical teams and cyber defense teams.

Dr. Joeanna Arthur, a human performance expert with a background in operational neuroscience, told Military Times that this program could improve upon the largely subjective measures of team performance currently being used.

Mostly team training in the defense department involves broad team-building exercises, classroom study and repetitions with stand-in or simulated teammates. At times, teams also work through simulated exercises.

“And while we may have really high-tech, high-fidelity training environments, we might have a 3D environment or modeling and sim environment, as opposed to that we have really low-tech, low fidelity instruments when it comes to assessment,” Arthur said. “Something like pen and paper or just naked eyeballing observational methods.”

Knowing how well the teams are doing is a combination of subjective analysis and guesswork. Primarily teams are evaluated through instructors’ observations and checklists.

The nature of defense operations and how teams are formed and used is also changing, involving more joint-service teams for short-term missions, such as cyber/electronic warfare or special operations and conventional troops working together. That means more quickly thrown together teams that don’t have months or years to work together and get into a battle rhythm that longer-term team training provides.

OPTEMPO would identify empirical, objective ways to measure if a team is working effectively.

DARPA posted the program announcement on Nov. 2. Industry and academic groups interested in participating have until Jan. 31 to file their proposals.

Once the agency selects the participants the initial testing and evaluation will start with the four-person Marine Corps Fire Support Team at Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center, Twentynine Palms, California.

The groups will determine which bio-behavioral markers they want to measure, those could range from rate variability to chemical markers present in saliva, brain electrical activity or eye tracking.

Military Times has reported extensively on an Army program called Measuring and Advancing Soldier Tactical Readiness and Effectiveness, or MASTR-E. The five-year program concludes this year and will transfer to the regular Army from the service’s Combat Capabilities Development Command-Soldier Center.

That program used a variety of sensors and measures to provide real-time feedback on individual soldier biomarkers to track and assess cognitive and physical fatigue. The program creates a kind of “performance dashboard” that commanders can use to track various markers of soldiers within small units.

While OPTEMPO may draw on some of that research, their focus is more on the inter-dynamics of the team. Beyond the biomarkers they plan to measure, participants must also measure communication dynamics, how well each member understands their and their teammates’ roles and takes timely action on a variety of tasks.

That’s one reason that they’re starting with the Marine Fire Support Team, Arthur said.

“It’s really, really cognitively complex,” she said. Also, each member of the team has a distinct, but interdependent role.

Much of the early research will be classroom-based. Participants will use sensors to gather data on how team members are acting and reacting in a simulated environment, she said.

While not yet official, the program is considering evaluating an Air Force Air Battle Management Team and a Navy Submarine Navigation Team as part of later events, according to the program announcement.

This is the first known data-driven human-to-human team analysis for DARPA, officials said. But the agency has had recent programs measuring other types of teaming.

The Agile Teams program looked at ways to create a methodology that would help design human-machine teams that best identified the best functions for humans to perform and those that machines should perform.

The Artificial Social Intelligence for Successful Teams, or ASIST, evaluated methods to give artificial intelligence ways to understand the decisions and context of their human counterparts, something people do naturally known as “theory of mind,” or intuiting what another person is thinking or why they’re doing what they’re doing.

The 42-month OPTEMPO program is divided into three phases, starting with participant selection and the Marine Fire Support Team analysis, then followed by a second phase that will run from late 2024 to early 2026 identifying, characterizing and validating the right bio-behavioral markers to measure. The final phase, from mid-2026 to early 2027 will involve “generalizing” the work to learn if it is applicable across a variety of military team training.

Todd South has written about crime, courts, government and the military for multiple publications since 2004 and was named a 2014 Pulitzer finalist for a co-written project on witness intimidation. Todd is a Marine veteran of the Iraq War.

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